Study Led by Baylor Professor Reveals Necessity for Improved Listening in Organizations

Marlene Neill, Ph.D., APR, associate professor of journalism, public relations and new media, led a study on ethical listening within organizations.
Nov. 29, 2021

Organizations aren’t listening, so employees not sharing legitimate concerns, study shows

Media Contact: Eric Eckert, Baylor University Media and Public Relations, 254-710-1964
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by Kate Nelson, student news writer, Baylor University Media and Public Relations

WACO, Texas (Nov. 29, 2021) – A Baylor University-led study on ethical listening discovered that women and nonmanagers believe that management is not receptive to their feedback and are dissatisfied with organization listening efforts. That, in turn, has led to fewer employees sharing legitimate concerns.

Marlene Neill, Ph.D., APR, associate professor and graduate program director in journalism, public relations and new media, conducted a study on employee perception of ethical listening, revealing significant deficiencies in organizational listening by upper-level management.

Researchers surveyed 300 U.S. employees and published their study in the Public Relations Review.

“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,” Neill said. “That means that organizations are not doing a very good job listening to their employees."

The primary findings of the study revealed 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 and nonmanagers were unsatisfied with their organization’s listening efforts.

Unresponsive management

The study found that management is not responsive to concerns and that an organization’s leaders are not interested in listening, and employees can tell that this is the case. This leads employees to experience reluctance when wanting 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 Neill discovered are departmental meetings, meetings with direct supervisors, annual employee surveys, employee intranet and anonymous report systems.

The survey identified the greatest deficiencies in ethical listening are time, staffing and training, including more training regarding analysis of data collected through listening. Organizations often have difficulties processing and implementing the information gathered in employee surveys. Improved information collection may enhance response and follow-through by management.

“The state of ethical listening in U.S. companies and organizations needs immediate attention to enhance both its frequency and effectiveness,” researchers wrote. “Specific deficiencies include a lack of employees who are trained in data collection and analysis and a lack of time and resources to ensure the information is properly shared internally with those who need the information for decision making.”

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.

The study noted that when employees are ignored, it leads to higher employee turnover, whistleblowing, low morale and productivity and diminished loyalty to the organization. Furthermore, there are also ethical implications when organizations discourage dissent from their employees by devaluing courage, individual conscience, authenticity and autonomy. However, it also may reflect employee indifference or apathy towards their organization, Neill said.

Struggling with authenticity

Survey answers also suggested the employees are reluctant to share concerns about a problem, issue or flaw for multiple reasons.

First, employees perceive that management does not listen to complainers and leaders are not interested in listening. Second, employees who are open about concerns are likely to withhold feedback on other issues.

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% of the respondents answered that they remained quiet about a concern sometimes, half the time, most of the time or always.

Many organizations are not resolving issues based on feedback, an example of pseudolistening or faux voice, which occurs when employees voice concerns that will have no impact on future decision making, researchers wrote. Furthermore, the data collected suggests that employees can identify when there are inauthentic approaches to their feedback.

“Authenticity may pose a problem when leaders say they want to listen but do not act on the information shared or employees perceive a lack of genuineness on this measure,” researchers wrote.

The study reported that management is unaware of silence when employees have concerns. They believe that their organization is effective in receiving critiques and concerns, whereas employees feel that they do not care and are unresponsive when receiving critiques.

Feeling ignored

Nonmanagers and managers found meetings with direct supervisors the most effective form of communication. However, nonmanagers and women were least satisfied with the quality of listening found in meetings with upper-level leaders, researchers found.

“Nonmanagers were least satisfied with the quality of listening that occurs in meetings with high-level leaders and most satisfied with listening that occurs in meetings with their peers and work group,” the study noted.

There was a noticeable difference in the survey between the experience of women and nonmanagers in organizations compared to upper-level employees.

Questions asked on the survey included “my organization asks the opinions of people like me before making decisions” and “my organization really listens to what people like me have to say.” These received the lowest scores among women and lower-level employees.

“Gender differences offer a profound look at what may still be perceived as a glass ceiling in modern organizations, that women believe they are less listened to than their male counterparts at all levels, but specifically in management,” the study stated.

Pandemic increases listening challenges

Neill noted that the survey data was collected in July 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun and remote work was becoming more commonplace. Since then, a rising number of employees have left organizations, further exacerbating the challenges of listening to employees.

“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.”

If employees believe their feedback is appreciated and listened to, they are more likely to approach management with concerns, the study showed. 

ABOUT THE STUDY

The study, “Employee perceptions of ethical listening in U.S. organizations,” is published in the Public Relations Review. Researchers are Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., APR, associate professor and graduate program director in the Department of Journalism, Public Relations and New Media in the College of Arts & Sciences at Baylor University, and Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications and College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina. The study was supported by a Page Legacy Scholar Grant from the Arthur W. Page Center at The Pennsylvania State University’s College of Communications.

ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.

ABOUT THE COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY

The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments in the sciences, humanities, fine arts and social sciences, as well as 10 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. Faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit baylor.edu/artsandsciences.

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