If you ask a group of people to raise their hand if they think they are above average at listening, a majority of them would have their hand in the air. Most of us believe we are good listeners.
But listening is inherently hard to do. Why?
Throughout our years of schooling, we spent a considerable amount of time learning reading, writing and speaking. Let's assume the average student spends about 12 years (grades 1-12) training their reading and writing skills and maybe even a year or two practicing speaking.
What about listening? Looking back on your education, how many years have you spent training this critical skill? Likely none.
Until I went through training to become a certified coach, I’d never practiced this skill in any deliberate way outside of attending a presentation on active listening, reading a book, or watching a TED Talk. I also learned that building your knowledge on what active listening is and should look like doesn’t necessarily make you good at active listening.
Listening is hard because we’ve likely never practiced or trained this skill properly. It's likely why most of us go through every day of our lives not being truly heard.
Where there is a collective problem, there is also an opportunity. If you can improve your ability to listen, it can have a profound impact on your team. Here's why.
Listening drives motivation.
In a 1966 study, Harvard Professor Robert Rosenthal with the help of Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment at an elementary school in California to understand the impact of teachers' expectations on students’ performance.
Rosenthal and Jacobson gave each student a general abilities test (essentially an IQ test), then chose students who were academically "blooming." These students, they told the teachers, were expected to achieve greater academic success based on their test results. They then told the teachers which students were not blooming (the control group).
The blooming students, however, were chosen completely at random — their test scores having no bearing on their label. Rosenthal and Jacobson wanted to see if teachers' treatment of certain students based on their expectation of the student’s capability would have an impact on the student’s performance. At the end of the study, all students retook the general abilities test, and the results were profound.
Rosenthal and Jacobson found the randomly selected, blooming students achieved significantly higher scores compared to the control students who weren't said to be blooming. The students’ success was not correlated to their initial general abilities score, rather, it was determined by the label Rosenthal and Jacobson randomly assigned them.
How does this happen? It can be explained by the Pygmalion Effect, which highlights how your belief in someone else leads you to act differently around this person, impacting their belief in themselves and leading them to take action based on those beliefs.
Explained more clearly, by believing certain students had high potential, the teachers gave their energy, attention and intention to them. They provided more help and gave extra feedback because they thought it would go further with these high-potential students than with the other students.
The lesson here is the importance of treating all of your people like high potentials and setting expectations high for all. It’s not the label of high potential that increases performance; instead, it’s showing your employees you care.
Listening with intention and attention affords you and your team a tremendous opportunity to lead on a whole new level -- to truly hear. If you can show people you care and make them feel heard, you’ll endear them to you, engage them with their work and motivate them to give their extra discretionary effort to you and your company.
Sustained motivation over the course of months and years does not come from a sales competition, a "rah-rah" speech, a ping-pong table or free lunches -- it comes when you show people you care about them as human beings. It comes when you understand who they are and what they care about.
This happens when you listen to another person. Be intentional about being there to hear them and give them your full attention.
Originally published in Forbes on February 14, 2019.