The art of hearing diverse voices

By Louisa Baczor, CIPD Research Associate

Our mission at the CIPD is to help ensure that work is a force for good that benefits everyone – businesses, individuals, economies and society. To achieve that, we believe the future of work needs to be much more human than it is today. But what does it actually mean to be human, and what are the innate limitations of human beings that we need to be aware of?

One of our human tendencies is to only pay attention to views that are similar to our own – something known as ‘confirmation bias’ (i.e. we believe what we want to believe). I think of this as being linked to our tribal nature of feeling solidarity with others that are like ourselves, and hostility towards those who are different. But in today’s complex and multi-cultural society, a mind-set of ‘tribalism’ can be counter-productive.

This inadvertent selective hearing becomes particularly noticeable during political campaigns. For example, during the run-up to the EU referendum, ‘Remainers’ focused on the costs to the UK economy of an EU exit, while ‘Leavers’ believed there were big risks associated with EU immigration in the UK. People tend to reaffirm their position or opinion by focusing on the evidence that supports it. And why wouldn’t they? It’s a survival instinct. Of course, social media is a huge catalyst for this phenomenon. For example, our Twitter feeds consist of the views of people we choose to follow; cutting out any ‘noise’ of contrary beliefs. But the danger is that this may lead us to perceive a distorted version of reality, and miss important pieces of information.

Accepting alternative and diverse voices means that better decisions can be made based on a sense of the full picture (not just one part of it which we think sounds the best). We need to understand perspectives that are different from our own – even if it feels horribly uncomfortable or uncertain. Cooperation requires social skills of listening carefully, and paying attention and responding to others’ points of view. Sennett (2012) calls this ‘dialogic’ listening, which is about behaving tactfully, finding points of agreement and managing disagreement, or avoiding frustration in a difficult situation. Being open to and genuinely caring about people’s perspectives builds trust, because doing so demonstrates one of the fundamental elements of trustworthiness: benevolence.

We can take an example of this type of listening in action from Easyjet’s CEO, Dame Carolyn McCall, who joined the organisation at a time when it was facing serious difficulties and not delivering on its customer promise. Rather than relying on the version of reality portrayed by senior managers, she spent time with the frontline staff, which got to the root of the problem and immediately highlighted what needed to be done.

At a conference I recently attended, Margaret Heffernan talked about the value of disruptive thinking. Too often, organisational cultures are characterised by a fear of expressing different ways of thinking, which stifles creativity. Tech companies such as Microsoft are hiring Arts graduates, who aren’t afraid to take risks and push boundaries to develop highly innovative solutions. We need to create environments where people feel supported to try new things and make mistakes along the way. Part of that is about hearing individual points of view, no matter how challenging they may be, and recognising that homogenous thinking carries the risk of not responding to what’s really important.

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  • Hi Louisa,

    Thank you for a great article. I was fascinated by your views as I have developed a coaching programme that looks at 'vulnerability' within organisations. One of the benefits is to promote the art of hearing diverse voices.

    As a consequence of this we have also developed a programme specifically aimed at men and the 'burning platform' that has developed, which is linked to 'vulnerability'. We hope to be talking about this at Work 2.0 in May in London.