NGOs: Active Listening Unlocks Creative Powers

A typical NGO meeting with management speaking and employees taking notes. Can the employees get a hearing for their insights? undated (Photo courtesy The Big Marker) Posted for media use

WASHINGTON, DC, January 9, 2022 ( News) – The world of work has been entirely transformed by the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years, but one thing has not changed – the importance of active listening – NGOs, to employees, to volunteers and to members of the community affected by an organization’s activities.

Whether the organization is a corporation, an NGO, a charity, the military, a government agency, or a family, the principle is the same. When members of any group believe their feedback is listened to, heard and appreciated, they are more likely to approach leaders with concerns, several studies published this year showed.

On the other hand, when people perceive that management does not listen to complainers and leaders are not interested in listening, they are likely to withhold feedback, depriving the organization, including NGOs, of their insights.

From the United States, a Baylor University-led study on ethical listening published in the December 2021 issue of the journal “Public Relations Review” surveyed 300 U.S. employees. It found that women and nonmanagers believe upper-level management is not receptive to their feedback, and  this has led to fewer employees sharing their legitimate concerns.

“The purpose of this study was to get a sense of how employees are evaluating their organizations when it comes to listening. There has been some prior research that suggests that there was a crisis of listening that’s been happening globally,” Marlene Neill, PhD, APR, Baylor associate professor in journalism, public relations and new media, said. “That means that organizations are not doing a very good job listening to their employees.”

Dr. Neill and her research team, which included University of South Carolina communications professor Dr. Shannon Bowen, found that both managers and nonmanagers agreed that complainers are not listened to within organizations. Employees feel that leadership is not authentic when listening to employee concerns. Women were less likely than men to perceive that their organizational leaders listen to them.

Employees surveyed rated their leadership as worse in collecting bad news, warnings of problems or consequences, and collecting concern, critiques and dissent. Managers and nonmanagers in the survey all agreed that those with concerns are ignored and that organizations only listen to what they want to hear.

When employees are ignored, the study found, it leads to higher employee turnover, whistleblowing, low morale and productivity and diminished loyalty to the organization.

There are also ethical implications when organizations discourage dissent from their employees by devaluing courage, individual conscience, authenticity and autonomy, Neill explained.

Some of the barriers to effective listening were limited ability to share insights from listening with supervisors and other employees, poor or absent training for collecting and analyzing intelligence that can be gained from listening, and employees who were unwilling to speak up due to perceptions that management was not sincerely interested in what they have to say.

The Baylor study found that when management is not responsive to concerns and an organization’s leaders are not interested in listening, employees can tell that this is the case. This leads employees to experience reluctance to communicate issues around such areas as employee performance, processes and suggestions of improvement, harassment and abuse and ethical issues.

The most common communication channels in organizations that Dr. Neill discovered are departmental meetings, meetings with direct supervisors, annual employee surveys, employee intranet and anonymous report systems.

Employees were asked about how often they remain quiet about an issue or concern seen in the organization. The responses reflected that honesty may not be appreciated within companies. The study shows that 85 percent of the respondents said they remained quiet about a concern sometimes, half the time, most of the time, or always.

Among the listening skills academics and practitioners alike identify as valuable, active listening, also called empathic listening, involves restating a paraphrased version of the speaker’s message, asking questions when appropriate, and maintaining moderate to high nonverbal conversational involvement.

Dr. Neill noted that the survey data was collected in July 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was just six months old and remote work was becoming more commonplace. Since then, a rising number of employees have left organizations, make the challenges of listening to employees even more difficult.

“There’s the difficulty in hiring and retaining employees in our world right now,” Neill said. “It shows the importance of employee communication, making that a priority as well as actually listening to your employees and considering their feedback and implementing some of their recommendations. We found some issues that have broader implications for society.”

Is Japan’s Polite Listening Active Enough?

“They just move on with their plans without our consent,” is a common complaint businesses throughout Japan hear after their “resident briefing sessions,” as they pursue future developments that affect residents of the location at issue.

These businesses allow interaction with residents who will be affected the most. But standard practice is to engage in an interaction where residents are individuals that need to be convinced, not people who need to be understood. This strategy is attractive to businesses because both parties have clearly defined roles: the business explains, the residents understand. In such a vacuum, there is little room for conflict to arise.

At Osaka City University, Professor Yasuyo Nomura, from the Graduate School of Human Life Science, has a different view. “Conflicts should not be avoided,” she said, “and depending on how consensus is reached, they can be an opportunity to strengthen the connection between people.”

Other common complaints Professor Nomura hears during resident briefing sessions are, “There is a limit to the number of questions you can ask and you cannot hear everything you want,” and, “They are biased toward the remarks of some people, and, “It’s hard to believe the company because their relationship with us is lacking.”

Professor Nomura teamed up with the PR Division of Hakuhodo, one of the oldest advertising agencies in Japan, which has a long history of helping corporations rebuild relationships with their clients, and helping businesses and residents interact in a way that turns conflict into moments of understanding for all sides.

After analyzing the problems with existing methods and the psychology of residents, the “interactive community consensus building process,” emerged, a process that takes place in workshops that have agreement between business and resident as the goal.

The workshops start out like any other dialogue. The business explains their development plans and the residents voice their concerns. Yet, now there is a positive change from business as usual.

Where a business would previously try to convince residents to not worry about their concerns, participants in interactive community consensus building workshops learn how to create a space where both parties sort out the reasons for these concerns and come up with solutions.

The key is repetition – one party voices concerns, and the other politely repeats these concerns to ensure they were heard correctly. When there is no discrepancy between the residents’ concerns and the company’s understanding of them, company representatives explain their plans anew, taking into account the information gained from this dialogue.

They then discuss policies regarding the company’s future developments from this point of a shared understanding.

Job Insecurity Insight

In a separate study published in the October 2021 “Journal of Occupational Health Psychology,” researchers at Pennsylvania State University, MacEwan University, and the University of Central Florida examined how managers’ active listening relates to their employees’ sense of job insecurity during difficult times within organizations.

Active listening is composed of three basic elements: attention, comprehension, and acceptance. The listener demonstrates careful attention to the speaker through body language. The listener also demonstrates comprehension, often by restating what the speaker has said. Additionally, the listener shows that they are open to the speaker’s point of view and concerns.

NGO: Women are listened to as a Psycho Social Rehabilitation Centre opens in Sumy, Crimea to provide socialization support for children with mental challenges with application of modern inclusive approaches to enhance their quality of life, a project supported by the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and Crimea SOS, September 18, 2018 (Photo courtesy UNHCR Ukraine) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Research shows that this engagement and understanding facilitate a deeper connection than results from passive listening in routine conversation.

When managers increase active listening, workers feel that they are supported and valued within their company. When workers feel valued by their managers, they are more hopeful about their employment future.

When the person in control engages in active listening, it provides a safe space for the worker, volunteer or family member to verbalize and process experiences and concerns, and identify resources, both within the organization and outside of it, enabling better control over the situation.

“People want to believe they will be rewarded for hard work, and layoffs underscore how external forces can affect someone’s employment more than the quality of their work,” said Mindy Shoss, associate professor of psychology at University of Central Florida. “Being actively listened to can help people understand that they are still valued and that they are not helpless in the face of uncertainty.”

Active listening by managers can improve employees’ sense of personal control over their careers and can reduce their anxiety about potential job loss. Job insecurity, the state of worrying about possible layoffs, can harm workers’ wellbeing as much as actually being laid off, the study found.

Worrying about layoffs can lead to chronic stress, sleep loss, poor eating, and higher blood pressure. In the workplace, this stress leads to a decrease in job satisfaction, less adherence to safety behaviors, and poorer performance.

Phillip Jolly, PhD, an assistant professor of hospitality management at Penn State, and his team, conducted their research in a large corporation where layoffs had been announced but not executed.

“Managers in organizations generally do not have control over whether layoffs occur or who will get laid off,” Jolly explained. “Unfortunately, when layoffs are imminent, managers often become withdrawn because they do not possess much more information about the future than their employees. Fortunately, there is something managers can do to support their employee’s wellbeing. They can increase their active listening about employee’s concerns.”

“Our work suggests that employees are sensitive to even small changes in a manager’s listening when their job is potentially on the line,” said Tiffany Kriz, assistant professor of organizational behavior, human resources management, and management at MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

“People tend to take note of what their managers do at any time, but in an environment of uncertainty they are paying even closer attention to what their managers do,” Kriz said. “A change in listening quality can send a powerful signal to the employees, while also helping them process the situation they find themselves in.”

Research on active listening originated in the field of counseling psychology, and the researchers emphasized that active listening can be useful any time people face anxiety.

“The active listening described in this research can be applied in families or non-profit organizations or wherever groups face uncertainty, “Jolly said.

“Listening is a powerful tool in every aspect of our lives. As we look forward to the post-pandemic world, we know that change and upheaval are inevitable in key industries like travel, hospitality, and retail,” Jolly said. “Hopefully, managers will learn the skills they need to support their employees during uncertain times.”

NGO Listening Research Frontier: Languages

In development programs, NGOs traditionally portray themselves as listening attentively to the voices of the beneficiaries and local communities with whom they work. Despite the fact that this relationship is normally presented by NGOs as a meeting in which local communities speak, and NGOs hear, the role of languages in these encounters passes largely unnoticed.

While the language challenges of working with humanitarian NGOs have begun to engage the attention of language and translation scholars, the world of development programs is one in which foreign language-related research is absent

This lack prompted researchers from the universities of Reading and Portsmouth in the United Kingdom to team up with the International NGO Training and Research Centre, INTRAC, at Oxford University, with its record of over 20 years working with some 200 NGOs, to create “The Listening Zones of NGOs.”

The lead investigators have an academic background in language policy and practice in conflict zones, and in NGO accountability and global governance.

Focusing on four large and well-established UK-based NGOs, the project will examine their language policies and practices over time in three contrasting case studies – Malawi, Peru and Kyrgyzstan – chosen to reflect different language landscapes for English-speaking NGO activity.

NGO practitioners have pointed to gaps in their present understanding of the place of foreign languages in development work – in relationships with beneficiaries, in the use of local versus external language intermediaries, in the power dynamics of NGO-partner relationships, in program design, and in the monitoring and evaluation frameworks expected by government and institutional donors.

The Listening Zones of NGOs project aims to address these concerns, and raise awareness of the role of foreign languages among the wider NGO sector by providing NGOs with detailed case study evidence of the role which foreign languages and cultural knowledge have played and continue to play in their development interventions.

The researchers intend to produce a toolkit, “Managing Languages in NGOs,” which will offer advice and guidance on how foreign languages can be integrated into NGO policies and practices at each stage of the development cycle so that co-workers and beneficiaries can participate fully regardless of the language they speak.

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