Managers aren’t good at listening
Are managers good listeners? This is the question Patrick Barwise and Sean Meehan address in a note published in the April 2008 issue of the Harvard Business Review. The research conducted by Barwise and Meehan indicates that managers tend to overrate themselves on their own openness to frank communication; the gap in self-perception being greatest when the views expressed are contrary those held by the manager. This conclusion is based on 360 degree surveys of more than 4000 US managers across a range of industries and functions.
The authors believe there are two factors at work here. Bosses tend to:
- Overestimate their openness to contrary views, as indicated by the wide differences between self evaluations and those of colleagues.
- Underestimate the extent to which the manager-managed relationship hinders their subordinates from communicating openly. That is, subordinates fear reprisals of some kind if they are the bearers of bad news or contrary views. The authors reckon this happens because bosses often unknowingly send out subtle signals discouraging their subordinates from speaking openly.
To get around this, they suggest that:
- Managers should assume they are less open to frank discussion than they think they are.
- Organisations should use 360 degree surveys specifically targeted to uncovering communication issues. They reckon that bad managers, when confronted with real data may be more open to changing their ways (Good luck with that, I say).
There’s no doubt (to me, at any rate) that Barwise and Meehan are right in their observations about managerial openness to frank communication . Most of us – managers or not – don’t like to be contradicted, and that’s no surprise.
On the other hand, I’m not so sure about their recommended solution. In my opinion fixes at the individual level, such as they suggest, will not work. I believe open communication needs to be fostered at the organisational level for it to permeate right through the corporate hierarchy. Put differently, it is an issue of organisational culture rather than management. Some workplaces have a culture conducive to open communication; others don’t. Those that don’t would not be able to fix the problem by confronting managers with the results of 360 degree surveys (or any other data for that matter). Given the anti-communication culture of the organisation, the said managers would simply deny there’s a problem and worse, may even confront those who they think are responsible for the negative feedback. In fact, because of the latter, such surveys may not even indicate there’s a problem as subordinates would not risk saying what they really think.
I’m interested in knowing what you think about this. Let me know via your comments.