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This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
Most of us are guilty of “half listening” to a boss, a spouse, a child — then wondering why there's a disconnect or conflict down the line. That’s not surprising: Effective listening is a skill that is not typically taught.
Research by Gabrielle Tetreault ’17 shows generational differences in a skill that, done right, can build relationships, spark innovation and open doors. Faculty member Aaron Nurick was her adviser on the project.
What are the main questions that your research sought to answer?
Gabrielle Tetreault: I wanted to understand how millennials perceive their own listening skills and their preferences for communicating in the workplace, and also how that is similar to or different from older coworkers such as Generation X and baby boomers. I explored how the similarities and differences play into intergenerational conflicts in the workplace, because there is a lot of popular media around that. The effect of technology on millennials’ listening skills was a large component of the study because it is so much a part of their lives.
Is listening undervalued in the workplace?
GT: Definitely. I wasn’t really aware of that until I took an honors seminar [Emotional Intelligence] and a management course [Interpersonal Relations] with Professor Nurick and we did units on listening. It became clear that, even though we spend a majority of our day listening, it is something we’re never really taught. We hear people, but we do not really understand what’s being said.
Aaron Nurick: Most of us have not been trained to listen effectively in certain circumstances. If someone comes to you with a problem or idea, for example, you need to consciously shift your mindset into active listening mode.
What are some of your findings?
GT: All of the generations I surveyed agreed that listening is a very important skill. They also agreed on the importance of different subsets of listening: cognitive [giving your attention, understanding what is said]; behavioral [responding or body language]; and effective processes [wanting to listen and take action as needed], respectively. People listed cognitive listening as the most important — and the most difficult.
A majority of the survey respondents reported they had never been taught listening skills; they learned on the job. In regard to perception, each generation saw themselves as better listeners as they got older: Millennials have the least confidence in their listening abilities, Generation X has a little bit more, and baby boomers have the most.
AN: Part of the confidence comes from inhabiting the role of manager and having general responsibility for a group of people. You start to recognize how often people come to you with problems that are not always easily solved. They require discussion and interaction, so you develop the capacity to listen. Millennials are now moving into those managerial positions.
GT: There was an interesting difference between self-perception and perception of your peer group. Seventy percent of millennials see themselves as having strong listening skills, but only 37 percent say the same about others in their age group. The gap was present but progressively smaller for each generation.
What role does technology play?
AN: There are key differences in the use of technology among generations. Older generations use texting in a factual manner — “I’ll see you at 8:00 tonight” — whereas millennials are generally much more comfortable having complete conversations through texting and email. The downside is they don’t get the 80 percent or more of body language that provides intent, and they spend a lot of time deciphering. A lot richer meaning comes across when you’re looking into someone’s eyes.
GT: The difference between technology and face-to-face is one of the more surprising aspects of my research. Eighty-five percent of millennials said they are comfortable using technology to communicate, but there was still a preference in the workplace for communicating with managers or coworkers face-to-face. They seem to understand it’s more effective to do that, but it is more natural to communicate using technology.
What are the dangers of not listening in the workplace?
GT: Millennials entering the workforce are expected to take in a lot of information, process it, and then act accordingly. Not having good listening skills will likely lead to miscommunications or hearing only half a message. So they will either produce something that is only part of what’s needed or filled with misinformation. Even more than that, they could miss opportunities to move forward in their career.
AN: Managers who proclaim an open-door policy but have a closed mind will miss out on developing talent and getting better results. Employees will not venture forth with new ideas and they will not take risks, which will block creativity and innovation in a company.
What’s your advice for creating a cohesive multigenerational workplace?
GT: The most promising finding is the similarity among generations about the importance of listening to each other — even if each group differs in how they want to do that.
Provide educational opportunities for all generations to learn the art of listening. A management role requires more reflective listening related to understanding a problem. Millennials do more action-based listening for information and assignments.
Also, understand and respect each generation’s preferred mode of communication. For example, balance in-person and remote communication for millennials: Instead of constant personal oversight on projects, allow for email status updates and reserve face-to-face meetings for more in-depth issues and guidance.
AN: We typically recognize good listeners: They are the people we’re drawn to, the ones who enable us to tell our story and be ourselves. A manager who is a good listener will be very effective at helping people develop their ideas and talents, and ultimately develop better solutions for particular projects.
How did you come to work together on this research?
GT: After taking two of Professor Nurick’s classes that focused on listening, I took another course that explored the interplay of generations at work. When I combined the two topics for my capstone project, I reached out to him as a faculty adviser.
AN: Listening is my area of interest. I was fascinated with the research topic because there are aspects I’m not familiar with, in regard to how it relates to intergenerational conflicts in the workplace. I thought Gabby had something that could fill a gap in the literature and connect those two issues.
GT: Professor Nurick was incredibly helpful when I was trying to figure out what my research questions would be. He had me start on the preliminary research and then helped me narrow everything down. He also helped me translate the findings and determine how to present them.
Have research and course work improved your own listening skills?
GT: Yes! I gained awareness about the way I listen. I actively practice techniques and definitely see changes in conversations and relationships with friends. I’m much more approachable. I ask questions to help clarify not only my understanding, but their thought process and where they’re coming from.
In my job at Liberty Mutual, I work mostly with a millennial cohort, but also with managers at different levels on a variety of teams. I’m interested to see if my listening habits change depending on the situation I’m in, and how other people expect me to listen.
About the Participants
Gabrielle Tetreault ’17 used Honors Program funding from United Technologies Corporation to survey more than 600 people about millennials’ listening skills at work. The newly graduated Management major is applying her own skills in a full-time post within Liberty Mutual’s Leadership Development Program.
Aaron Nurick, professor of management and psychology, has taught, written and consulted to multiple organizations on topics related to effective management. These include interpersonal relations, emotional intelligence, organizational change and other areas where listening skills come into play.
Alison Davis-Blake, the former business school dean at the Universities of Michigan and Minnesota, was inaugurated as the eighth president of Bentley University in a ceremony attended by students, faculty, staff, alumni and other members of the extended Bentley community.