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Posted by Ayesha Patel 27 June 2018 Innovation Consultancy

The different elements of innovation are often discussed and chief among any list of essentials is communication. This can include the ability to discuss ideas, the willingness to speak up and make suggestions heard and even how to pitch an innovation in order to gain funding or secure partnerships. However, one aspect of communication that is rarely discussed is listening. Listening is a core competency for fostering innovation, as without it communication can quickly break down and valuable contributions are missed. So how does listening fuel innovation?


Change is a constant when it comes to innovation, and an organisation’s ability to be agile in the face of change can often determine whether they will remain innovative in the long term. If listening is a key driver of change, then listening therefore fosters innovation.

An article by Harvard Business Review (HBR) explored the role of listening in providing employee feedback and fostering change at the individual level. HBR argued that when employees are given feedback on their performance, they often become defensive and stressed, which makes it harder to see someone else’s perspective.

However, HBR argues that whereas ‘feedback is about telling employees that they need to change, listening to employees and asking them questions might make them want to change.’ HBR’s research showed that ‘experiencing high quality (attentive, empathic, and non-judgmental) listening can positively shape speakers’ emotions and attitudes.’

Applying these insights to innovation is crucial if you want to engender change. Given that ‘high-quality listening […] helps speakers see both sides of an argument (what we called “attitude complexity”), listening can help foster openness in discussions of new ideas. By translating this in to an organisational culture of innovation that is supportive and encourages team members to contribute, listening can bring about innovations and change.


Likewise, the link between listening and increased employee engagement is strong. When employees are engaged, they contribute more meaningfully to an organisation and have an increased capacity to drive innovation. This in turn leads to growth and profitability.

According to author and HBR contributor, Greg McKeown, listening is ‘one of the most important ways to engage employees.’ Pointing to a 2014 Gallup survey which found that 63% of the global workforce is not engaged, McKeown suggests that this is both a waste and an opportunity. In trying to take advantage of the opportunity, he observes that ‘many companies fall into the trap of trying to engage their employees by doing more - which is, in essence, just creating more noise.’ Yet far from creating deep and meaningful engagement, this often leads to gimmicky attempts at engagement.

McKeown suggests ‘deep engagement does not begin with getting people to listen to you; it begins when you really listen to them.’ Arguing that ‘in a knowledge age, so much value creation lies in the ability to figure out what’s important—by listening,’ McKeown suggests that listening should be a key component of employee engagement. By listening to suggestions made by employees, it is easier to spot strong ideas that hold innovation potential and to encourage others to come forward with suggestions of their own. This requires meaningful listening that is devoid of distractions and makes employees feel valued and supported.

Listening is therefore an important skill to develop if you want to drive innovation. Whether fostering change or boosting engagement, the relationship between listening and innovation is strong. To learn more about change and employee engagement, follow the links below to see how think can help.

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