All News and events

New research might explain why so many senior executives are such poor listeners. In a world that increasingly depends on one-on-one influence and relationship to get things done, a shortage of good listeners is seriously bad news. And in an increasingly polarised political landscape, those in public office are hardly setting a great example.

In our last newsletter we reported that psychologists had discovered yet another self serving bias that makes us less likely to see another’s point of view: It’s my theory so it must be right. In short, we are inclined to be sure that our theory is right, simply because it’s our theory. In other words, I believe I am smart, I also believe X, therefore X must be true. The latest research compounds the problem. It seems that people who score highly for ‘intellectual self confidence’ are significantly less likely to be curious about other people’s points of view.

Or conversely, people who score more highly for ‘intellectual humility’ are significantly more likely to be curious to find out more about the views of others. And this matters. There is a wealth of evidence that this willingness to ask open questions – and listen – forms the foundation of productive relationships.

Researchers, Tenelle Porter and Karina Schumann from the University of Pittsburgh, created a scale to measure intellectual humility. This included questions such as, ‘I am willing to admit if I don’t know something.’ And, ‘I actively seek feedback on my ideas, even if it’s critical.’ They also asked some questions to gauge the opposite of intellectual humility: “If someone doesn’t understand my idea, it’s probably because they aren’t smart enough.” And “I don’t like it when someone points out an intellectual mistake I make.”

Having compiled their index, the researchers recruited 200 students to participate in the study, in which they imagined encounters, in which they disagreed with someone over contentious issues such as gun control or same-sex marriage. Those who scored more highly for intellectual humility tend to view those who disagreed with them in much more constructive ways. For example they were more likely to attribute their points of view to unique experiences or perspectives, rather than any lack of intellectual prowess.

The researchers then sought to move on from imagined situations in the laboratory and test what people actually do in the real world. 200 new participants were recruited and asked to participate in online surveys about equally contentious topics. They were then given links to articles, some of which endorsed the point of view and some of which argued the opposite. Here something interesting happens. Those who score low on the intellectual humility index, are just as likely to click on links for articles that disagree with them, as for those who show high intellectual humility. However people with low intellectual humility, spend significantly less time looking at those articles with opposing views.

Having high levels of intellectual confidence, it seems, means we risk giving too little time to other points of view. This form of confidence reduces our curiosity about opposing viewpoints.

This has practical implications in the real world. At Threshold we are increasingly being asked to teach people how to ‘influence upwards.’ You already start at a disadvantage. Your boss is inclined to think their point of view is right, simply because it’s their point of view. And we now know, because of this, they have little inclination to explore an opposing viewpoint.

This means that if you are going to be listened to, you need the right tactics to get attention. Position your point of view, not as altogether different, but something that builds on their existing point of view. Hey, perhaps it was something that your boss said or did that inspired you to think about this and explore it further. (You get the idea!)

Make a point of how much you appreciate your boss’s openness to new ideas – how unusual it is in someone so senior – and of course bring to mind an occasion in the past when they showed openness and flexibility. If you are going to be listened to you need to get smart about it.