Listening is a critical skill – it enables us to comprehend and make sense of the information we receive. This is especially true for leaders. Listening is the primary channel through which issues rise through the ranks and reach decision-makers. However, listening goes beyond merely hearing spoken words. It involves paying attention to the speaker’s tone, emotions, and any incongruence between verbal and non-verbal cues. Without active listening, we risk a lack of full understanding, which can lead to incorrect conclusions or misguided decisions. Listening is easier when things are calm but is especially critical when making high-pressure decisions under tight deadlines. Unfortunately, listening often breaks down precisely when leaders need it most.
Listening Is Important, Yet Challenging – A Recent Example from Professional Soccer
A striking illustration of the importance of listening, and the potential consequences of its breakdown, occurred in the 2023/2024 season during an English Premier League match between two top soccer clubs, Liverpool F.C. and Tottenham F.C. Embroiled in controversy following a disputed offsides call, the referees’ decision during the match ultimately cost Liverpool the game. In the contentious aftermath of this event, the League took an unusual step. They released the audio tape of the video assistant referees (VARs) to counter any allegations of corruption and to demonstrate that the incident was a result of human error. You can watch the entire episode by clicking on Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. X (formerly Twitter) Post of Video from Premier League Officiating Incident
Note. The video can also be accessed here: https://twitter.com/NBCSportsSoccer/status/1709271138705060287
What piqued our interest in this video is not its implications for soccer, but rather how it provides a vivid illustration of breakdowns in listening. It is immediately clear that listening under duress is challenging. Individuals tend to respond to stress by narrowing their perspective; in a group context, this can lead members to become hyper-focused on their own tasks and inadvertently overlook interdependent interactions and handoffs with others. During this Premier League match, the pressure on the referees was palpable. The deadline was clear, short, and constantly at the forefront of officials’ minds. Not only was there internal pressure within the referee group but also external pressure as the entire soccer world awaited their decision. Team members couldn’t afford to completely pause their work to focus on listening, a situation that mirrors the stressful experiences of EMTs, air traffic controllers, and participants in high-stakes meetings. Ultimately, team members were so engrossed in their own tasks that they not only missed verbal cues but also the on-field referees’ decision.iii
Importantly, the sources of the breakdowns in listening are subtle. Throughout the video, requests for clarification and questions are subtle and indirect, often coming from a lower-status team member – the replay operator – who is not an official referee. These indirect requests are easy to overlook, particularly when they come from someone with less formal authority. This aspect of the incident underscores the importance of accountability. Specifically, that those in higher positions of authority need to bear the brunt of ensuring individual and shared understanding – particularly when messages come from further down the chain of command.
The video also highlights how two-way communication falters at this critical juncture. Initially, there was a clear call-and-response pattern (“2D line on the boot?”; “2D line on the boot.”) which then devolves into chaos.iv Interestingly, even a few extra minutes of stress can make a difference in decision making.v This breakdown in communication is precisely why, in high-stakes and pressure-filled situations, there are frequently formal protocols in place – often with verbal sign-offs. These protocols are common in various fields, from flight crews to surgical teams, and serve to ensure clear communication and prevent misunderstandings that could have significant negative consequences.
A final layer of complexity is that this is not a single team, but rather a multi-team system.vi That is, the multiteam system comprises the primary on-field referee, a supervisor (referenced in the audiotape), and the video assistant referee (VAR) crew, which consists of four members (i.e., the video assisted referee and three assistants).vii These teams are dispersed throughout the stadium, which significantly limits the opportunity to glean information from facial expressions and other nonverbal signals. Thus, listening across team boundaries made a difficult situation even more complex – a reality mirrored in most organizations.viii
A Conversational Analysis of the VARs
To extend our analysis of this incident, we conducted a conversational analysis of the video:ix We considered the amount of negative affective tone and number of questions asked among the officiating crew during the video (Figure 2). These data indicate a cyclical pattern. Specifically, one can see negative sentiment in the tone of communication (i.e., the dashed red line dips below zero). This negativity is often followed by questions (i.e., an uptick in the teal line). This cycle is suggestive of stress manifesting verbally, which is then accompanied by inquiries or requests for information exchange. Unfortunately, many of the questions that were asked go unanswered.
This pattern remains consistent and becomes more pronounced as the deadline for making a decision approaches and then eventually passes. The steepness of the negative affective tone deepens, indicating escalating pressure. Teams are acutely aware of these time pressures, and it significantly impacts the pace at which they engage in tasks. The urgency to reach a decision under such conditions can often compromise the quality of communication and, ultimately, the decision itself.x
Figure 2. Conversational Analysis of the Video Assisted Referees (VARs)
Note. Sentiment reflects a net score (i.e., positive sentiment – negative sentiment). Dashed lines are observed values and solid lines are aggregate trends.
Practical Ways to Improve Listening Under Duress
This compelling example suggests several practical implications and points to strategies leaders can employ to identify potential stressors and defuse situations to enhance their listening effectiveness.
- First, leaders can question firm deadlines and push for extensions in order to make better decisions. They can also explore ways to increase resources to alleviate pressure (e.g., allocating more budget or staff to a high-priority project). Ultimately, reducing team stress affords more space for information to be shared and fully understood.
- Second, leaders and their teams can try to cultivate a calm environment when making important decisions. In some situations, it might be beneficial to pause, refocus and regroup before proceeding. This is exemplified in the Toyota paradox of ‘hurry slowly.’xi In the case of the VAR crew, an additional two minutes to conference across the system may have altered the outcome of this match.
- Third, leaders can ask clarifying questions and use open-ended questions. Employing these strategies and others, such as paraphrasing, closing the loop, and making verbal statements, are ways to check understanding. For instance, “Are you saying that … [summarize understanding]?” or “I heard X. I just want to check that I’m understanding this correctly.” Such behavioral tactics can greatly enhance listening effectiveness and thereby improve the flow of information and understanding throughout a team.
In the world of sports, referees often go unnoticed until they make a bad call. Much like the overlooked referee, the value of listening may not be fully appreciated until workplace stress and pressure lead to problematic decisions and subpar outcomes. In business, the ticking clock, scarce resources, conflicting positions, ambiguous decision authority, and organizational politics can all serve as the corporate equivalent of a controversial offsides call. It is in these high-pressure situations that listening skills are put to the test.
So, the next time you find yourself in the throes of a challenging situation, remember the VAR crew. Take a moment, breathe, and listen to the members of your team – not just to the words, but to the ‘total meaning’ of what is being said. Your team, like the players on the field, is counting on you to make the right call.
[i] We used GPT-based language models to support the writing of this blog. We initially developed the thesis and outline for this piece. Then, we used that outline to craft prompts to help generate complete sentences for the final draft. After using this tool, we reviewed and edited the content as needed and take full responsibility for the content of the publication.
[ii] We would like to thank George Hallenbeck and Samir Mehta for their thoughtful and constructive feedback on earlier drafts.
[iii] Driskell, J. E., Salas, E., & Johnston, J. (1999). Does stress lead to a loss of team perspective? Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 3(4), 291.
[iv] Marlow, S. L., Lacerenza, C. N., Paoletti, J., Burke, C. S., & Salas, E. (2018). Does team communication represent a one-size-fits-all approach?: A meta-analysis of team communication and performance. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 144, 145–170.
[v] Pabst, S., Brand, M. & Wolf, O. T. (2013). Stress and decision making: A few minutes make all the difference. Behavioral Brain Research, 250, 39-45.
[vi] Zaccaro, S. J., Dubrow, S., Torres, E. M., & Campbell, L. N. (2020). Multiteam systems: An integrated review and comparison of different forms. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 7, 479–503.
[viii] For a recent webinar on the importance of Connections to team effectiveness, we recommend:
[ix] Knight, A. P. (2021). zoomGroupStats: Analyze Text, Audio, and Video from “Zoom” Meetings (0.1.0) [Computer software].
[x] Waller, M. J., Zellmer-Bruhn, M. E., & Giambatista, R. C. (2002). Watching the clock: Group pacing behavior under dynamic deadlines. Academy of Management Journal, 45(5), 1046–1055.
[xi] Ward, A., Liker, J. K., Cristiano, J. J. & Sobek, D. K. (1995). The second Toyota paradox: How delaying decisions can make better cars faster. MIT Sloan Management Review, April.
The Second Toyota Paradox: How Delaying Decisions Can Make Better Cars Faster (mit.edu)