‘Boss, Are You Still Listening?’

Anouk Decuypere, a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Law at the University of Antwerp, and Armin Pircher Verdorfer, an associate professor in the Faculty of Economics and Business at the University of Amsterdam, discuss their article, “Leader Attentive Communication: A new Communication Concept, Validation and Scale Development,” published in the Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies (additional training study methodology is also available).

Effective communication is a foundational leadership skill, yet it feels like a lost art in this era of distractions. One phenomenon that particularly stands out in this context is a lack of attention through (boss) phone snubbing, which has been shown to substantially undermine employee trust and engagement.

How do leaders up their communication game?

In our study, we developed a new behavioral communication construct, with 10-item questionnaire, that focuses on employee perceptions of leaders’ attentive communication. Specifically, it entails both 1) the perception of the general attention their leader displays during a conversation, and 2) the perception of how a leader pays attention to their nonverbal cues.

Interestingly, throughout the three studies in the validation paper, we found that leaders and employees do not see eye to eye: employee and leader perceptions of leader attentive communication had either a very low or nonexistent correlation. Therefore, if leaders want to impact their employees positively, it is important to understand their perspective and get feedback.

Man in chair yelling into two megaphone with text ovrlay of 'an open minded attentive demeanor while in conversation with an employee'

Leader attentive communication training

Building on this work, as part of the dissertation of the first author, a comprehensive leader attentive communication training bootcamp was developed. The bootcamp contained four behavioral building blocks. First, “working with attention” focused on multitasking and distraction, mindfulness, listening behavior, and emotional contagion. Second, “non-verbal aspects of communication” focused on evidence-based conversation techniques such as leader attentive communication, non-verbal communication during story-telling and working with personal space preferences. The third building block, “verbal communication”, was based on scientific insights with regard to communication biases, and giving and receiving feedback. Last, we worked on “integration”. This was based on scientific insights with regard to asking for help, peer mentoring and training transfer.

Results of the bootcamp

We pilot tested the communication bootcamp in a longitudinal design (pré, post and two months post training), and assessed its effects on leader communication, leadership, leader attention and employee wellbeing. Despite the interference of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, we found some positive trends over time in employee-reported leader attentive communication, satisfaction with leader communication, servant leadership and mindfulness in communication, although not in both training groups. Leaders’ self-reports indicated no changes.

In addition, we found that Kahn’s psychological conditions for engagement (availability, meaningfulness and safety) mediated the relationship between leader attentive communication and employee work engagement.

Open questions concerning the lockdown revealed that employees’ experience ranges from very positive to extremely negative, while leaders indicate that it drastically impacted their communication with their teams and impaired their ability to pay attention to subtle cues. Therefore, even through (covid-related) remote work impacted leaders’ perceptions of their communication effectiveness, employees did not seem to judge them as harshly.

Conclusion

Attentive communication can be learned. It requires practice and a commitment to be present during conversations. In addition, it requires the courage to ask for feedback from employees, as their perceptions of leaders’ communication are key and will impact their wellbeing.

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Anouk Decuypere and Armin Pircher Verdorfer

Anouk Decuypere is a postdoctoral researcher at DigiTax, an interdisciplinary research center at the University of Antwerp, currently conducting interdisciplinary research on citizens' fairness perceptions of governmental AI use for tax compliance.

Armin Pircher Verdorfer is an associate professor of Economics and Business at the University of Amsterdam and a Post Doctoral Researcher in the School of Management at the Technical University of Munich.

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