Shut up & listen (why don’t leaders listen?)

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Why don’t leaders listen?

To be an effective leader/manager whether in public services, the private sector or a family run business – you need to listen.  

So, why are so many people in leadership positions not good at it?

I bet you can think of a colleague or a client right now who waits for a team member to finish talking just so he/she can jump in with what they have to say.

Or worse, the colleague who impatiently talks over others or answers their mobile (responds to a text) during a meeting.

It is not like leaders/managers don’t know they need to listen.

There are enough instances in the business world of the disastrous consequences of people not listening.

For example, the British Petroleum executives who did not listen to the experts about the risks associated with their oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. The oil well exploded in 2009, killing 11 workers and costing an estimated £65 ($100) billion in cleanup costs.

When you talk to managers, most know that they don't listen enough. They just do not realise how poorly they listen, much less why they don't listen better.

This was the focus of the research by Nathanael Fast and his colleagues at the University of Southern California.

They discovered that many managers will stop listening when they lack self confidence, feel defensive and have a need to protect their ego or status.  What is interesting about this research was how easily a manager’s state of confidence could be manipulated and how quickly it affected their ability to accurately judge others’ competence.

The first stage of their research looked at 637 managers and staff within a global oil company. The managers were asked to complete an assessment that measured their self confidence and the staff members were also surveyed.  

The results showed that managers who rated themselves as lacking in managerial self confidence had staff who felt their manager did not listen to them.

The second stage examined what caused managers to lack self confidence. This research asked 131 managers (84 women) to take part in a fictional case study where they were managers in an airline with rising customer complaints.

The participants had their confidence manipulated before starting the case study by getting feedback that either they were not rated as competent managers or alternatively, that they were considered to be great managers.

In the case study, the participants were asked to run a meeting where they provided a solution to the rising customer complaints. However, during the meeting, the Head of Maintenance suggested an alternative solution, that he argued was better for the airline in the longer term.  

The results showed that managers who had feedback that suggested they were not competent were less likely to listen to the Head of Maintenance’s solution. They expressed less faith in his expertise and did not seek help from him or his colleagues.

Nathanael Fast et al., hypothesised that the results were caused by the perceived threat the Head of Maintenance posed to the low confidence manager’s ego and managerial status.

Interestingly, they tested this hypothesis by asking participants to complete a short exercise that built confidence.  This exercise worked, leading the researchers to conclude that managers’ inability to listen was caused by their lack of self confidence, defensive feelings and a need to protect their ego and status.

The EBW View

This research provides some interesting insights into why those in leadership positions may not listen to advice at critical times. It suggests why some people seek to take command, direct conversations, talk too much, or worry about what they will say next in defence or rebuttal. Additionally, why they react quickly or fail to make the time to listen to others.

Whilst it would not be wise to conclude that people do not always listen because they lack confidence or feel threatened, this research does provide more support for the need to develop Emotional Intelligence. It suggests that leaders/managers need a better understanding of themselves and others if they want to be able to listen effectively at critical times and not let their emotions and insecurities impact on their success.

Here are our top 3 tips based on this research on how to be a better listener:

  1. Develop your self confidence.
    A great way to remain self confident is to write yourself a hand-written letter once a month, listing all of the things that you have accomplished (It really does work!). Listen or read positive material regularly that inspires you. Identify your biggest fans and then nurture those relationships. No (wo)man is an island—meaning you can’t do it all on your own. Sometimes all you need is a little reassurance or objective feedback, and your biggest fans are the people who do just that for you.
  2. Be aware of your body language
    This is where posture, smiling, eye contact, and speech impacts on your ability to listen effectively.  Smiling will not only make you feel better, but will make others feel more comfortable around you. Try to keep your mouth closed when a person is speaking to you, maintain eye contact, actively take notes and resist fidgeting.  Use your hands and body language so others know that you are open to their viewpoint – for example, don’t sit with your arms crossed and frowning – you may be concentrating on what others are saying but to many it may feel like you are disengaged.
  3. Think about the way you talk
    Some of us speak faster when we’re nervous. Some of us are naturally fast talkers. Regardless of your motivations, conscious or subconscious, speaking too quickly generally indicates a lack of confidence. Importantly, while speaking quickly, you’re more likely not to be truly thinking about what you are saying, indicating you have not really been listening. Try slowing your speech, paraphrasing what others are saying and asking follow up questions that show that you are actively listening.  These actions will encourage the speaker to be more open about his or her concerns.

If you would like to know how to develop your leaders' and managers' Emotional Intelligence; so they can understand others, they actively listen at critical times, they encourage feedback and control negative emotions - Click here or contact us.


Fast, N., Burris, E., & Bartel, C. (2014). Managing to Stay in the Dark: Managerial Self-Efficacy, Ego Defensiveness, and the Aversion to Employee Voice, Academy of Management Journal, 57 (4), 1013-1034