Actions Speak Louder Than (Listening to) Words

By Diane M. Bergeron
Center for Creative Leadership

Kylie Rochford
University of Utah

Melissa Cooper
Case Western Reserve University


This Research Insights paper challenges the assumption that ‘good’ listening behaviors are sufficient to make employees feel listened to (which we refer to as felt listening, i.e., the holistic perception of feeling listened to). In Study 1, using 133 qualitative critical incidents, we explored leader behaviors that make employees feel listened to (or not) when they speak up to leaders at work. In Study 2, in an experiment with 187 employees, we examined the role of leader responses to employee voice on employee perceptions of felt listening and how leader responses influence employees’ intentions to speak up again in the future.

Overall, our findings augment some of the oft-given advice about how leaders should listen. We highlight four key findings:

  1. Action matters. Overwhelmingly, how leaders respond (by taking action or not taking action) surfaced consistently as a critical factor in whether employees feel listened to. It’s not just how well leaders listen – it’s what they do about what they hear.
  2. Leader responses influence whether employees feel listened to and if they will speak up again in the future. When leaders act on employee voice, employees feel listened to and are more likely to raise suggestions, concerns and ideas in the future. When leaders do not take action, employees do not feel listened to and are less likely to speak up again.
  3. Employee judgments of leader listening include longer term assessments of leader actions. Employees view listening as a relational process. Their retrospective perceptions of leader listening include both listening behaviors in the moment as well as later, longer term assessments about whether the leader took any action on what was voiced.
  4. Beyond action, leaders need to pay attention to demonstrating other listening ‘signals.’ If leaders want to elicit more employee voice but cannot act on the specific idea or suggestion, they need to send other signals. These can include validating employees, supporting or engaging with employee ideas and suggestions, endorsing ideas and concerns, and making time to listen.


Bergeron, D. M., Rochford, K., & Cooper, M. (2023). Actions speak louder than (listening to) words: The role of leader action in encouraging employee voice. Center for Creative Leadership.

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