Why does no one listen to you at work?

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I’m notoriously pretty insecure, so I may not be the best person to tackle this topic. I frequently think people don’t listen to what I say, or care what I say, or think I have value, or … well, I could go on and on, but it might get depressing. (And hell, in my mind you might not be reading this anyway.) In most jobs I’ve ever had, I’ve felt like I’m pretty under-utilized. If you say that devoid of context, you sound like an asshole. “Oh, they should have done so much more with my talent!” Nope. I don’t even think I’m really that good at most office jobs — but I always think I could be doing more or have my ideas listened to a bit more. If you read this blog (or have even read it once or twice), you probably think that I have ideas about a bunch of different stuff. I do. It’s just that no one really listens to anything.

If you’ve ever felt this way, now we have a little more context behind why it happens. Follow the bouncing ball on this post from iDoneThis:

  • Here’s a study from NYU on power and advice-taking. The takeaway? The people with more power tend to listen less, take less advice, and ultimately be less successful in final decisions.
  • The four primary things that a manager needs to do are: information-gathering, conveying information, decision-making, and being a role model.
  • The first step of those four has to be information-gathering because without that step, you can’t really do the other three steps.
  • Most managers are pretty poor at simply walking around and talking to their employees.
  • Because managers are (generally) powerful and powerful people are (generally) confident, their reaction is to stop listening.
  • As a result, the two qualities you need for good listening are openness and vulnerability.
  • Who has ever seen a workplace centered around vulnerability and openness?

Think about this for a second: the two qualities you probably most need to be a good listener are two things essentially absent in most workplaces.

Basically, this is the terrible cycle of most jobs:

  • Things would be much better (or could be much better) if managers listened more.
  • Managers have a degree of power.
  • Power makes you listen less.
  • Almost every aspect of what would make a successful manager — empathy, etc. — is completely contrasted by how you need to act to become a manager in the first place.
  • The system is set up to fail.

Did I just say something overly drastic? Perhaps. But also perhaps not. Think about it — you need to typically show very ‘go-getter’-ish qualities in order to become a manager or rise up the ranks of a given place. But those qualities that make you stand out will, often, make you a terrible manager. You don’t rise up the chain via empathy and listening and organic communications and caring. You rise up the chain by putting your nose to the grindstone and nailing projects and playing the right politics. No one hires thinking of introverts and no one promotes thinking of the more empathetic amongst them.

Workplaces can be effective — millions of companies turn a profit, so people are doing something right — and workplaces can be fun and interesting (although that often depends on your co-workers), but I can’t really see any mechanism by which a standard person could become a good manager or learn to listen to their people at work.

What do you think? Too negative, or is there a way for transparency and vulnerability to really emerge in a management context?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and I’m a member of the BlogPoets network. My deal: I try to think differently about work, the future of work, leadership, management, marketing, organizational development, customer experience, and more. I’m out here trying to chase real professional connection and collaboration, not just 200K page views. Anyone want to talk? (I also do freelance and ghostwriting work, if anyone’s into that.)

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