Listening on teams to join-the-dots well

Engineers face a daily challenge to perform increasingly complex work (as opposed to complicated) with often very little person-to-person contact. Despite more data-rich environments, it is easy to over- or under-estimate shared understanding without fit-for-purpose listening on teams. The Engineering Skillnet is introducing a new ‘deep listening’ technique in a study of twenty teams to boost interpersonal and business excellence. Interested companies can register here:

 Listening to reduce error

“Joining-the-dots” isn’t just about connecting the right technical information, it is both a social and cognitive process. Listening is one of the hardest soft skills to master but also one of the most useful for engineers to learn, problem-solve and stay resilient.

The world of work is becoming more data-rich and information-heavy. Although we have less in-person communication, listening is one of the most powerful tools we have to avoid costly errors when we fail to convert data into knowledge well. When planning for preventative maintenance, for example, eliciting and hearing the views of operators and technicians is key or a CMMS may not deliver.

“Seeing is believing”, as they say, but we can also be highly selective in what we hear. ‘Selection bias’ appears in many forms and can damage our objectivity, for example, in the creation of machine learning models. We are now at the cusp of ‘cognitive maintenance’ with smart systems that can self-diagnose but we are still dependant on humans to combine to address the fault appropriately and avoid unnecessary call- or parts swop-outs.

Cognition in the form of ‘confirmation bias’ may can result in us, by default, hearing only what we want to believe. We may assume that people can read between the lines more than they can. For example, when they see that we're working hard, that observers can tell we’re mearing a corrective fix. Our understanding of each other is dependant, however, on frugal information processing functions. Close attention is needed even to exchange  information well when in-person and, these days, there is much to distract us.

Types of listening that helps to join-the-dots

In his bestselling book “Thinking Fast and Slow”. the Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, noticed that the brain is designed for energy efficiency and is quite lazy. He showed that biases i.e. mental shortcuts influence how students make decisions. Research of engineering students also showed a big gap between what they think they know against what they actually do.

In fact, most of us share this tendency. A quick google search or preliminary grasp of a subject gives us a false sense of security (called the “Dunning Krueger effect”). At times, the medium of communication is the problem. For example, instant messaging doesn’t necessarily deliver instant understanding. This is a big difference between what is called ‘assumed’ versus ‘attained’ understanding. Intelligibility gaps are often expressed as “not joining the dots” and are less to do with amount of experience (or I.Q.) than with poor reasoning processes. i.e. we make incorrect inferences from the data we have.

A key point is that “joining the dots” isn’t just cognitive; it is also a tricky social exercise too. Connecting with people is tough, especially in a world of ever increasing and diverse specialisms. In fact, poor decisions based on ‘false consensus’ are more common than ‘groupthink’. Being human means that we often over-rely on what we all know (or think that we do) and self-censor well-founded doubts.

Active listening and open sharing

There is no data without ‘noise’ and, therefore, good listening is a challenge. More data and so many different technical languages can amplify interference. Even with a wealth of real-time engineering, operations and maintenance reports, listening out for what remains unsaid is important. This skill of ‘active listening’ is central to working with others to solve complex problems.

Listening seems deceptively simple but isn’t and partly this is to do with our own expectations. Engineers are not known for their tolerance of ambiguity and incongruity yet engineering solutions often are to be found in what initially seems contradictory. Systems, for example, can work in counter-intuitive ways e.g. shutting down a route reducing traffic elsewhere.

Given the tsunami of data associated with ‘Industry 4.0’, it is more important than ever for engineers to cultivate effective communication and interpersonal skills. Otherwise, we miss what is really meaningful. Data can’t make decisions for us and there is a leap sometimes needed from data collection to finding creative solutions.

Relationship skills are central to teamwork and only as a team can we meet the big challenges. Central to any relationship is our ability to listen effectively and a willingness to share generously.

The directed attention of listening avoids ‘noise’; helps the speaker speak, hear themselves, for everyone to integrate knowledge and this promotes personal and business excellence. It also even takes advantage of pesky biases as without them, we lack the will to engage our different opinions.

Listening skills can be learnt, improved and fine-tuned depending on the task at hand. Nurses, for example, are trained to apply a particular listening technique in palliative care (called 'Gadamerian). Engineers need specialist tailored listening approaches too, for example, in fundamental trouble-shooting.

Deep listening’ for the future skill-readiness

A new ‘future-of-work’ concept, termed “Employment 5.0’ is now heralded and it is characterised by resilience, sustainability, and human-centrism. It also raises the bar on how much we need to respect and listen to one another as workers in order that no one is left behind as technology and systems evolve.

Surviving the faster pace of work and technology advancement requires better self-management and autonomous learning. The skill of “metacognition” helps technicians and engineers understand what they know, what they do not know, what they learn, and how they learn.

Listening skills are positively associated with both self-direction and action-orientation in engineering students to assist learning. The evidence suggests that well-developed listeners can evaluate the strategic effect of their effort and to make adjustments, if necessary, for greater understanding. This is key to solving more complex problems in future.

Spearheading a study on team listening

The Engineering Skillnet is introducing, exclusively, an opportunity for twenty teams to flex their listening and sharing practices. Teams will be introduced to a proven and reliable technique that links interpersonal excellence with achieving individual, team and organisational goals.

During March-April, teams will undertake workshops lead by skilled facilitators. Each team is assessed before and after this to encourage regular practice and technique application. The impact on teams and individuals will be measured in a study by the University of Limerick. 

We look forward to rolling this out in the coming months and interested member companies are invited to make contact for further details