I'm Talking But Are You Listening?

The workplace is often a challenging environment to be in, however the types of stressors that people encounter can have very different consequences on an individual’s well-being at work, and which play very different roles in their motivational process. We can categorise these stressful situations as either “challenge” or “hindrance” stressors. The former are job demands which have the potential to promote personal growth or future gains, while the latter are job demands that interfere with personal growth and goal attainment.

Any job demand will drain an individual’s finite resources, but individuals who are confronted with “challenge” stressors are more likely to increase (or maintain) their effort because of the promise of goal achievement and need satisfaction. The most likely cause for this is the notion of ‘reciprocity’ - because they feel like their efforts are being rewarded. In contrast, hindrance stressors weaken one's sense of obligation, and thus an individual’s likelihood to increase their efforts.

Effective communication is the formal and informal sharing of meaningful and timely information in an empathetic manner (e.g. keeping others well informed, giving meaningful explanations). This type of two-way communication also requires ‘reciprocity’ - and here we find the key overlap: employees working in challenging environments may be more motivated to engage in effective communication.

Recent research from a group at the Harbin Institute has found that individuals confronted with high-level challenge stressor adapt their communication styles in ways that help them deal with those demands. For example, when confronted with time pressure and workload, they tend to utilise more time efficient means of communication. Similarly, because misunderstanding or uncertainty waste both time and effort, employees modify the manner, timing, and content of their messages to develop a more robust common understanding. When faced with complex problems to solve, employees engage in more effective communication to increase their opportunities for constructive discussion, and improve their decision-making.

In contrast, hindrance stressors (e.g. role conflict, ambiguity, organisational politics) are seen as unlikely to be overcome by personal effort. When working hard is no longer linked to desirable outcomes, employees are less motivated to exert effort, or reciprocate beneficial behaviours. What they also find is that hindrance stressors increase the likelihood of engaging in emotion-focused coping, whereby individuals seek to reduce the emotional distress associated with a situation. That tendency directly inhibits effective communication for two reasons: they require effort and because critical processes such as perspective-taking often create personal distress (something they are already trying to minimise). Those emotion-focused coping behaviours are associated with lower levels of empathy, and less effective communication.

They found two moderating factors on the effects of challenge and hindrance stressors:

Supervisor Communication

The concept of social learning theory would imply that supervisors are able to provide cues to employees on what effective communication behaviours are. In the presence of challenging environments it allows employees to model their own communication to adapt to the complexities of their situation, and thus more effectively direct their efforts into the right types of communication. Supervisors are also able to foster more opportunities for growth, contributing to a more “challenging” environment.

They also found that supervisors are able to tackle many of the hindrance stressors that may inhibit an employee’s ability or willingness to communicate effectively (e.g. by reducing role ambiguity, or mitigating organisational politics).

Active Listening

The researchers found that an employee’s active listening skill amplifies the role their supervisor plays because it empowers employees to get more from their supervisors to help them tackle both challenge and hindrance stressors. This makes sense given the reciprocal nature of communication.

the takeaway

  1. Consider your environment, the types of stressors impacting your employees may be playing a more fundamental role on how well your team communicates than you may realise.

  2. Understand the critical role that a supervisor or manager plays in shaping the way an employee interacts with that environment.

  3. Look out for and promote the development of active listening skills.