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At some level, most of us – if we are being entirely honest – probably play lip service to something from time to time: it’s a shortfall in listening skills that lets us do so mostly safely. If we didn’t, situation comedy authors would have to stop using the character response “No, really – that’s fine” to wring an uncomfortable laugh out of their audiences. Perhaps we laugh out of schadenfreude (and perhaps there is a wry chuckle to be had from English needing to borrow a German word to express the pleasure of witnessing the discomfort of others), but I’d wager the discomfort comes from familiarity. There can’t be many of us who haven’t, at some point, said “Yes, of course” or “I hear what you’re saying” and not really meant “I can hear what you’re saying, and you appear to have lost your mind.”

But paying lip service can be a rather delayed form of payment, and the interest rates might put payday lenders to shame. This isn’t a new sentiment: Mervyn Dinnen has recently wittily skewered managerial misapprehensions about millennials in the workplace – arrived at paying lip service to arriving at any kind of understanding of those individuals being managed – in a blog posting, 3 Things Millennials Need to Know About Their Bosses.

Those three things, by the way, are:

  1. They’ve read a whitepaper/study/report on what you’re like and how they should manage you. They may even have had a day rate consultant come in and educate them on it.
  2. The report has told them that you’re a digital native, have a sense of entitlement, get bored easily, want to spend all day on Facebook and whatsapp, don’t intend to stay with them very long and would much prefer to work the hours that suit you than a regular 9 to 5.
  3. They have kids, or have friends who have kids, who are similar in age to you so they really do know even more about you than the report could tell them.”

It’s a very funny article, and perhaps one that affectionately misrepresents the millennials as much as the caricatured ‘boss’ but, as before, it’s comedy that gets its effect from familiarity and plausibility. Stereotyping is, after all, a specialised variety of lip service: pretending to understand something or someone that you haven’t actually taken the trouble to explore or comprehend. And as my colleague Jo Manton recently argued in a Huffington Post article (Stereotyping Your Leaders Is Just Bad for Business), the shallowness and pigeon-holing that it fosters in the longer-term is ultimately bad for everyone.

There is a basic equation at work that seems to extend beyond relative status or authority: keep paying lip service to others and they will eventually stop paying ear service to you. Todd Rundgren made this point in the banal context of a pop song:

But you can toy with my emotions
Baby, only so long
Because the very next time
I see you talk through your hat
You will get no more attention, I can promise you that”

But researchers from Melbourne and Leiden Universities seem to have produced rather more empirical evidence. In an article (When Employees Talk and Managers Don’t Listen) recently published at strategy+business, they report on a survey undertaken at a Netherlands healthcare company, exploring with employees and supervisors the opportunities given to the former to offer ‘input’ and the opportunities taken by the latter to listen to and act upon it. To quote from the commentary when the latter’s responses are considered:

Their responses were largely consistent with those of employees. In fact, the supervisors said that they actually ignored their employees’ input a bit more often than the employees suspected. The fact that the employees were more frequently ignored than they realized implies that the study gives a conservative assessment of the prevalence of pseudo voice — and the reach of its damaging effects.”

Those effects don’t make for comic reading, as they include:

  • employees who suspected that their managers only feigned interest in their ideas became more reluctant to offer input
  • when employees voiced their opinions less often, their conflicts with colleagues increased. The conflicts took a variety of forms, including bossing someone around, refusing to participate fully in meetings, and starting arguments
  • disgruntled employees took out their frustrations on co-workers because they feared losing their jobs or experiencing other reprisals if they challenged their managers.”

While offering opportunities for ‘pseudo voice’ may work in the short-term, the authors explain, any lack of evidence of having listened on previous occasions will quickly undermine this approach and backfire: where employees’ sought input is ignored once, it is less likely to be offered twice, and trust, respect and engagement begin to erode. Indeed, employees may well suspect that their opinions will be ignored even if this is not the case.

As they conclude:

To avoid this outcome, it is not enough for managers to solicit opinions only when they intend to listen — they also have to provide feedback that includes tangible evidence that they followed up and did something.”

Heaven forbid anyone might voice an opinion as to quite where the manager might put that suggestions box …