Managers Who Listen Boost Staff Creativity

Now, my son, listen carefully as I instruct you. Genesis 27:8 (The Israel Bible™)

One would think bosses would have the common sense to pay attention to their employees’ suggestions and grievances, but many managers either lack the time, inclination or emotional intelligence to do so.  

They would be well advised to listen to the counsel of researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and King’s Business School at King’s College London. They have proven that managers who listen attentively could boost their team members’ creativity – and that can mean higher profits.

Published in the American Psychology Association’s’ journal Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts under the title “Mere Listening Effect on Creativity and the Mediating Role of Psychological Safety,” the international study encompassed nearly 700 participants.

The researchers used surveys and lab experiments to show that employees who felt that they were being listened to were more likely to rate themselves as creative, to be more prolific in their output in a creative task and to produce higher quality work.  Their study also found that these positive effects fail to take place when managers are distracted while listening to them.

In contrast with most research on creativity, which focuses on how people can make themselves more creative by listening to others and absorbing their ideas, this research focuses on the role of the manager and on the difference that can be made in one-on-one interactions.

Dr. Dotan Castro at HU’s Federmann School of Public Policy and Government said the series of studies was meant not only to establish the link between creativity and being listened to but also to understand the reason for this connection.

The researchers recruited an online panel of working employees in Israel in exchange for payment of about 50 US cents. They provided the participants with the story that they would be working in a company that produces bricks, where they had to imagine a meeting with their manager. In the meeting, they were asked to come up with as many uses as possible for a brick for the company marketing efforts.

They randomly assigned participants to read a vignette depicting either a good or a poor listening supervisor and built the vignettes based on their definition of listening. In the good listening condition, participants were asked to imagine a meeting with their supervisor who listened attentively, ignored distractions, and was interested in what the participant had to say. In the poor listening condition, they asked participants to imagine a meeting with their supervisor who didn’t listen to them.

[wpipa id=”94167″]

To make the vignette study more realistic, they asked participants to elaborate on the imagined situation by recalling a similar experience of a supervisor who demonstrated good listening, or poor listening and to briefly describe this. They then asked participants to suggest as many uses for marketing bricks as they could in two minutes.

“While research suggests that individuals may increase their own creativity by listening to other’s ideas, the effects of being listened to by others have remained understudied to date. We hypothesized that listening behavior of superiors may positively impact employees to explore new ideas flexibly, leading to higher levels of creativity,” they wrote in the journal article.

“Whereas past research suggests that those who want to be creative need to listen to others, we propose that those who want to be creative can also benefit from being listened to. More specifically, we argue that listening instills psychological safety in individuals, which makes them feel free to think creatively and express their ideas, and [this] consequently increases their creativity,” Castro and colleagues wrote.

When an employee feels listened to, it enhances their sense of psychological safety.  It may be that this boosts creativity because they can focus more on the creative task; they aren’t wasting mental energy on making micro-calculations about how their manager might respond to what they are saying,” Castro continued.

King’s Business School Prof. Frederik Anseel added that “any manager could put this research into practice today. However, organizations should also consider the potentially powerful effect of introducing listening training or adopting a listening circle as a complement to the brainstorming techniques that are more commonplace.”

The scientists’ final laboratory test explored the impact of the quality of listening on an employee’s creativity by placing a flickering screen in front of the listener’s eyes.  The speakers were unaware of the presence of the screen and were asked to come up with as many creative slogans as they could for an imaginary product. 

Those who had a partner distracted by the screen gave their listener a poorer score for listening.  More importantly, these speakers came up with fewer slogans and these were typically rated as less creative, by independent judges, than those produced by the group with “good listeners.”

Castro concluded that “this finding is also crucial – if you want to use the power of listening to enhance creativity, you can’t fake it.  You have to give your employee your undivided attention and it is worth making sure that the setting you choose gives you the opportunity to do that.”