The challenge

Most organisations are grappling with digital transformation as they integrate artificial intelligence into workflows and create new working models. Listening to employees will be critical to lead this change and innovation. Many organisations focus their efforts on team leaders and middle managers. But good listening involves a significant re-think of both the processes organisations use and the development of listening capabilities within leadership.

These findings from my research with Howard Krais and Kevin Ruck are outlined in our book Leading the Listening Organisation just published by Routledge. We outline the significant performance and health benefits leaders and employees will enjoy by improving listening.

One of our insights was the importance of building listening capabilities amongst leadership to create organisational climates in which listening is valued as part of routine exchanges and decision making within the business. Of course, this will happen spontaneously in some teams and areas, but our message is that it requires active management to sustain listening and that the benefits clearly justify the investment.

Where to start

The evidence suggests it is the way leaders listen that is critical to the performance of organisations, and more important than listening at more junior levels. The table highlights that the way senior leadership is perceived to listen shows stronger correlations with a range of desirable outcomes when compared to the way line managers are perceived to listen. These outcomes are critical in digital transformation.

Correlations between organisational outcomes and the perceived responsiveness of senior managers vs line managers
Key:
1. Senior managers at my organisation respond to what employees say
2. Line managers/supervisors at my organisation respond to what employees say

Source: Who’s Listening? From Measurement to Meaning. Global listening survey 550 professional respondents

The data shows that the responsiveness of leadership is not only pivotal in shaping the way an organisation is perceived to listen, but also to achieving the benefits listening delivers. This might appear to be counter-intuitive since most listening happens at the team level, but the example set by senior leaders permeates throughout the business and plays a key role in creating a climate in which listening is valued and which can help identify new ways of working.

Developing leadership listening

Artificial intelligence and new working models involve the need to lead change, innovate, build resilience, and create positive employee experiences. This requires leaders skilled at managing human processes that engage and motivate people. Executive education tends not to address this. Listening rarely features in mainstream MBA programmes. The communication skills that managers acquire and are encouraged to develop focus far more on persuasion and influence; on how to win arguments rather than how to involve others in discussion and debate about tackling new opportunities.

The problem is not that leaders don’t recognise the importance of listening; it is more that they don’t recognise it might apply to them. We all tend to think we’re good listeners and a lifetime of promotions and positive reinforcement makes it difficult to reflect on how I might need to change when I get to more senior levels.

Leaders may forget how scary they seem to others. In groups leaders are the centre of attention. They hold positional power that others defer to, which makes it risky to speak up. Leaders need to show vulnerability, curiosity, humility, and insight into other perspectives to encourage others. They need to ask good questions, empathise and challenge assumptions – rather than try to answer all questions. People are much more likely to implement actions based on their own insights than those they are told to do.

One of the important behaviours that is difficult to summarise is clarity about when not to answer but instead to work with the group on problems and to challenge groups so that participants learn. This can be difficult for leaders who are not promoted for these capabilities. If anything, they are valued for their ability to come up with answers rather than help others develop them. They have built careers on finding solutions and solving problems. But the skill sets we need now are far more powerful – they help others to solve problems.

Leading the Listening Organisation was published in early 2024. It is the result of 5 years’ research and years of experience working within client organisations.

We believe that listening is at the heart of effective communication and change. When clients want to communicate purpose or strategy, or lead changes in ways of working, effective implementation always relies on listening.

Our book addresses a misbalance. For years communication has emphasised transmission over receive. We have looked at why this is the Listening Age, why listening matters and what gets in the way. The book explores great practices and provides a comprehensive round up of ways to listen, including chapters devoted to digital listening and employee resource groups. As the title suggests this book is focused on how leaders create organisations that listen well. No amount of good processes and systems will help the business if the leadership is not open, responsive and empathetic. The book explores how leaders who are tuned in to employees’ perspectives reap benefits in innovation, change and performance. The final chapters cover the role of leadership, how to create a listening climate and our leadership listening model. This brings together capabilities, processes, principles, and outcomes – illustrating how leaders can create organisations that flourish through effective listening.

Co-authored by Mike Pounsford with Howard Krais and Dr. Kevin Ruck, the book marries original research, academic background and practical advice.

The book is available from good bookshops, Amazon or direct from Routledge here.

Over the last four years I’ve written four reports on how organisations listen to their people with my colleagues Howard Krais and Dr. Kevin Ruck. They are all available to download for free here:

  • Who’s Listening? – Small scale EMENA Research Project, December 2019
  • Who’s Listening? – Good Listening Practice, June 2020
  • Who’s Listening? – From Measurement to Meaning, Global Survey, Spring 2021
  • Who’s Listening? – The Critical Role of Senior Leaders, Spring 2022
  • No one argues that listening to employees is a bad idea. Yet the evidence is that listening remains one of the most difficult areas of communication to get right within organisations:

    1. Virtually every major negative corporate event (safety incidents, reputational crises etc) cites a lack of effective listening to employee voices as a contributory factor
    2. Repeated cross-company research studies highlight poor listening as a weak link in communication. See our research which is the subject of our forthcoming book: Leading the Listening Organisation (1). But many other studies endorse this. For example, according the 2022 State of the Sector analysis (the leading annual international cross sector report published each year by Gallagher) 53% of organisations lack robust processes for capturing insight and feedback (2)
    3. Although employees often acknowledge leadership wants to listen, they regularly criticise leadership for their poor efforts at listening (3)

    Recurring patterns like this suggest deeper systemic problems than “bad actors,” however easy it might be to point fingers. Listening is a problem not because people are deliberately trying not to listen, but because listening is incredibly hard to do well and the product of complex organisational dynamics.

    In fact, listening is the least well understood element in the communication mix. Creating an organisational culture in which effective listening becomes part of how we work on a routine basis requires appreciating and addressing challenges at individual and organisational levels.

    So, what are the challenges that make listening so hard?

    At an individual level…

    Listening is complex

    Listening does not just mean stopping talking. It represents a number of complex skills. For example, good listening includes:
    • Hearing what people say and noticing what they do not
    • Understanding their point of view and the context for their remarks
    • Empathizing with their emotional state and appreciating how they feel about any given situation
    • Asking insightful, relevant and open questions
    • Suspending judgement and avoiding filtering or selective listening
    • Suspending the inclination to prepare responses while the other talks
    • Encouraging people to share their views; appreciating their input
    • Maintaining an open mind and being curious
    • Responding appropriately – beyond ‘ah-ha’s, nods and smiles – with pertinent follow up questions or comments on what others are saying
    • Identifying and/or helping others to identify salient and key insights

    Given this range of attributes it is hardly surprising that many people are criticised for being poor listeners. Listening is not easy. Training in listening skills tends to focus on a narrow range of these attributes around active listening (e.g. behaviours like eye contact, body language, open questions, summarising) but rarely addresses the attitudinal and learning dimensions such as being aware of one’s mindset and adopting a collaborative search for meaning and insight.

    Blind spots
    Despite this, most people rate themselves as good listeners (how many self-confessed poor listeners do you know?). Research shows that people on average rate themselves as better listeners than others (4) and lack self-awareness and the feedback that they may need to improve their own listening style. Most of us suffer from this self-assessment bias.

    Not only that but, as Elizabeth Williams illustrates in her research (5), future leaders are not given the chance to learn about how to become better at listening. When it comes to communication skills executive education focuses almost exclusively on how to become better at persuading, influencing and presenting ideas, rather than collaborating, learning and understanding multiple perspectives. Executive education has traditionally overlooked the need to develop effective listening skills in our leaders.

    Power and group dynamics make a huge difference
    Problems in listening caused by group dynamics and power relationships could be classified as individual or organisational. The fact is that it is often difficult to speak up in a large group (fear of humiliation, looking silly, etc) and to speak up to power (fear of censure and also fear of humiliation). Many well-intentioned leaders fail to appreciate that their personality or behaviour cannot fix this. The problem is not about how they behave but about the perception other people have of their power. Addressing this requires
    a) understanding and managing group dynamics (e.g. always encourage discussions in small groups even at big company events; ensure anonymous responses are enabled on feedback tools; appreciate inputs and respond to issues not people), and
    b) always positioning the need to listen to each other as a key requirement for the business to succeed (6).

    In organisations where leaders do not have good intentions and do not want to hear things that contradict their narrative, the barriers are obviously higher and require different interventions at executive levels to avoid long-lasting damage.

    Secondly, at an organisational level…

    Silos, tribes and ingroups
    An in-group are people who are familiar; with whom others feel they have something in common which might include shared goals or other shared interests. People are more likely to listen to and care for those in their own in-group and care less for those deemed in their out-group. The good news is that it is relatively easy to shift how people view those in other groups by building familiarity and common purpose. To listen across the organisation means paying attention to and establishing connections across the organisation.

    Noise
    Given the multitude of feedback mechanisms that are available, how do organisations filter feedback to identify the voices that count? The search for salience involves identifying patterns in feedback and avoiding bias in the selection of those who help with the analysis. Objectivity is critical so bringing together the right groups to support the analysis, and ensuring they are representative and equipped to speak truth to power plays a major role in how well organisations listen.

    Lack of effective listening systems and processes
    Most listening to employees is completely dominated by the use of surveys. While valuable in some ways (e.g. representation, trends, benchmarks, comparisons, factor analysis), surveys rarely expose causal factors, lack a human touch, and are difficult to respond to at local levels. An effective listening culture needs passive, active, sensitive and deep listening processes (7).

    This article highlights some of the barriers to listening and our book explores in more depth these issues and solutions to improve listening. Key to these solutions is approaching listening at a systemic level and appreciating it cannot be tackled just by attempting to change behaviours, nor just by implementing new processes.

    Notes

    1. Mike Pounsford, Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais; 2024; Leading the Listening Organisation: Creating Organisations that Flourish (Routledge). https://www.routledge.com/Leading-the-Listening-Organisation-Creating-Organisations-that-Flourish/Pounsford-Ruck-Krais/p/book/9781032433769#
    2. Gallagher; State of the Sector 2021-2022. Interestingly, as we found, Gallagher’s data reinforces that while companies and leaders are perceived to want to listen to employees, it is the practice rather than the intention that is perceived to fall short
    3. For a much more detailed analysis see “Who’s Listening? The critical role of senior leaders” Spring 2022 by Howard Krais, Mike Pounsford and Kevin Ruck. https://couravel.com/fourth-listening-report/
    4. For a thoughtful analysis of some of the difficulties involved in being objective about how we listen, and how we make it easy for others to speak up, see Megan Reitz and John Higgins; Speak Up (Financial Times Publishing, 2019). They are particularly good at exposing the barriers to listening created by the power dimension involved in organisations
    5. Elizabeth Williams is a member of the Associate Faculty and a Doctoral Candidate at Royal Roads University, Victoria, BC Canada. Her review of listening in MBA and executive development training programmes features in our forthcoming book. She found executive education in communication focuses overwhelmingly on presentation and broadcast skills rather than on listening
    6. Amy Edmondson “The Fearless Organisation” provides a great framework to help leaders think about how to encourage listening in their organisations. One of her central points is the need to link listening to the achievement of organisational purpose (e.g., patient safety in healthcare, productivity in manufacturing, customer service in retailing, etc)
    7. See our forthcoming book but also the Listening Spectrum we introduced in “Who’s Listening? Good Listening Practice” June 2020 by Howard Krais, Mike Pounsford and Kevin Ruck. https://couravel.com/good-listening-practice/

    Leading the Listening Organisation, which I co-authored with Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais, will be published in early 2024 1.  During our research for the book, we found lots of evidence that listening matters but that many organisations only pay lip service to it.

     

    In discussion groups and write in responses numerous communication and HR leaders talked about the importance of influencing colleagues about the importance of listening.

     

    This article highlights important lessons that I hope will be helpful.  It provides a shortlist of 9 reasons why the way employees think and feel should always be an input to decision making and leadership at all levels.

     

    One: Find out what is really going on

    Because all organisations are complex human systems, listening to diverse voices helps keep tabs on what is going on in the business.   Numerous reputational disasters (think Volkswagen, Wells Fargo, Enron, National Health Service) include lessons in unheard voices that could have averted tragedy.  Working in more remote ways just increases the need to ensure channels are in place to share perspectives and provide feedback.

    To share openly, people need to feel that their voice is wanted and valued, that they will not be criticised or humiliated for speaking up and that it is safe to challenge2.  One critical factor to emphasise is that the achievement of purpose and goals (whether it is patient safety, customer service, production efficiency or support to beneficiaries) requires the open sharing of opinions and perspectives.  People have to believe that speaking up matters to everyone.  It is a lack of faith in this that stops people from speaking up3.

    Two: Ensure people recommend their organisation to others

    Employees are critical ambassadors and if they are going to promote the organisation they work for to potential recruits or to customers, they have to feel valued, and listened to, themselves.   This will not be achieved by the most common approach companies have to listening – conducting surveys4.  Because listening is about making people feel heard and appreciated.  Responding to questions about what I think of the organisation may be part of the process.  However, they must be complemented by human interactions and visible, transparent responses to peoples’ feedback.  If not, surveys may do more damage than good in terms of shaping how people feel about the organisation.

     

    Three: Build engagement, productivity and performance – demonstrate that the organisation takes its people seriously

    The evidence of the link between listening, engagement and performance is overwhelming5.  But what I find even more compelling than the social and organisational research data is the feedback from the neuroscience labs.  It is this that explains why listening is fundamental to getting the best from people.   We are social animals and being excluded is painful.  This is not a metaphor; it is real pain.   There is a tangible decline in performance that neuroscientists can measure associated with the feeling of being left out.   Our needs to feel that we belong, that we are valued and recognised are basic human needs that drive our ability to perform effectively.    If leadership teams struggle with the validity of endless employee research data and linkages, show them the data from the work of people like Matt Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger that prove the damage that can be done when we do not listen effectively6.

     

    Four: Identify ideas and innovation

    The next time you order a coffee and find your name on the side of the cup remember that it was Starbucks openness to employee ideas that helped them introduce this innovation to make the purchase experience more human.  Or when you next use a Post-It, remember that it was 3M’s employees Spencer Silver and Art Fry who identified by accident the potential of weak glued paper.   More recently, the pandemic was populated with numerous stories about how individuals and teams have found new ways to work productively while working remotely.

    The potential of employee listening to identify innovations based on what works in our organisations is limitless, provided organisations listen out and are open to new ideas.

     

    Five: Build resilience and the ability to cope with change

    One of the quickest ways to damage communications around change is to attempt to have an answer to every challenge and concern that employees raise.  Any change – be it a merger, reorganisation, relocation, or new IT system – will have pros and cons.  Increasing standardisation may involve a trade-off in responsiveness to individual needs; increased de-centralisation may involve less purchasing power in the centre; and so on.  Managers and leaders who attempt to paint rosy pictures and fail to acknowledge the realities of the downsides of change alienate employees who are seeking credible reasons to support change.  There needs to be realism and adult to adult exchanges in order to build confidence and resilience during change.

    One of the interesting themes in our research is the connection between better listening within organisations and the ability of those organisations to navigate change and build resilience.  Listening to and acknowledging the dilemmas inherent in change helps equip people to face those difficulties and come up with solutions that they feel that they have helped to shape.  As a result, people will feel more vested in making the solution work.  If it is imposed from above people are more likely to lack the ownership and motivation to make it work.

     

    Six: Improve customer service and focus

    Customer facing employees know about the things that matter to customers, and the patterns and behaviours that influence what people value, what they consume, what they want and what they will buy – in every sense of the word.  Combining insights from what customers say, and sharing those insights, with insights from what employees say is key to improving service.

    Nordstrom’s outstanding reputation for customer service is largely based on combining a focus on listening to customers and listening to employees – and encouraging the latter to take the initiative in serving customers.  Some of the legendary stories of Nordstrom employees accepting returns for products Nordstrom doesn’t even sell indicate the extent to which people are empowered there.

    Toyota also has built its reputation for quality on customer focus and listening to employees – empowering them to influence efficiency and quality in its production system.  The famous Andon cord which allows employees to halt production if they detect a defect or a problem is a direct feedback loop that has not only minimized defects but also continually improved the production process.

     

    Seven: Build the tribe

    Another insight from behavioural science is the importance of building alignment behind common goals and familiarity with colleagues in order to build the feeling that we are all in the same in-group.  We care more for other members of our in-group and less for those outside it.   While we all form in-groups out of work, leaders and managers can also help shape who we see as part of our group, or ‘tribe’ at work.  By sharing perspectives across the business, working on shared issues together and co-creating the future we can break down silos and build a common purpose.

     

    Eight: Make better decisions

    Diversity and inclusion are often celebrated because of the importance of recognising the importance and value of minority interests, and promoting social justice at work.  While this is important better listening to people with diverse perspective also increases the quality of decision making for the majority.  This has been researched a number of times both in the context of financial investment decisions and in jury decision making7.   If we listen to each other, we make better decisions because we are more likely to reflect diversity in the decision-making process.

     

    Nine: Be a positive corporate citizen

    The more we heard about listening the more people talked about the expectations of young people and external stakeholders (e.g. investors, regulators and customers) that modern organisations should listen to their employees in order to flourish and cope with the fast changing nature of work today. Listening to employees is increasingly seen as an indicator of responsible governance that shapes the internal and external reputation of leadership.

     

     

    Mike Pounsford

    mikep@couravel.com

    +44 7860 196343

     

    Notes

     

    1. Leading the Listening Organisation; Creating Organisations that Flourish by Mike Pounsford, Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais will be published by Routledge in early 2024 – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leading-Listening-Organisation-Creating-Organisations/dp/1032433760
    2. See “The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety” by Timothy Clark (Berrett-Koehler, 2020) for a great analysis of how to create places where people feel free to speak up
    3. Another great resource that explores how to build Psychological Safety is Prof. Amy Edmondson’s “The Fearless Organization” (Wiley 2019). She makes the link between organisational purpose and listening
    4. This insight that surveys still dominate how organisations listen keeps cropping up in research into listening methods. We identified in 2021 that 59% of organisations use the large annual survey to listen to employees, dwarfing all other approaches cited.  Source: Who’s Listening?  From Measurement to Meaning April 2021 https://couravel.com/third-listening-report-published/
    5. The most famous of these probably remains the Engage for Success report of David MacLeod and Nita Clark; and Tanith Dodge’s Evidence reports. All can be accessed via the Resources page of the Engage for Success website https://engageforsuccess.org/resources/
    6. See Matthew Lieberman’s book “Social: Why our Brains are Wired to Connect” (Oxford University Press, 2013) or for a more accessible short video that covers the ‘Social Pain is Real Pain’ insight look at https://tinyurl.com/SocialPainisRealPain
    7. See for example the research of S Sommers on the impact of “Racial Diversity and Group Decision-Making” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2006) and the work of S Levine and colleagues on how “Ethnic Diversity Deflates Price Bubbles” (PNAS 2014)

     

     

    I’ll be talking at the ODN Europe conference on Friday September 23 about Creating a Listening Organisation.  We’ll be exploring:

    • Why organisations that listen well to their people are critical for success in emerging hybrid organisations
    • How difficult it is to achieve effective listening at an organisational level
    • Key factors and strategies that can improve listening

    Here are links to all the recent Listening Reports that I have written with Howard Krais and Dr Kevin Ruck:

    1. Who’s Listening? – Small scale EMENA Research Project, December 2019
    2. Who’s Listening? – Good Listening Practice, June 2020
    3. Who’s Listening? – From Measurement to Meaning, Global Survey, Spring 2021
    4. Who’s Listening? – The Critical Role of Senior Leaders, Spring 2022

    People need clarity and certainty about their organisation’s strategy to share goals and build common purpose.  But an understanding of strategic themes (e.g., digitisation, customer experience) will not bring strategy to life and provide “line of sight” – that key connection that explains “what it means for me”.

     

    Real understanding, and indeed the effective implementation of strategy, requires the internalisation of strategy.  In other words, understanding how to apply what the strategy means to the work that people do, the decisions they make, and what they communicate to colleagues, customers, and suppliers.  For example, if the strategy involves investment in new technology people need to know how this helps their work, how customers benefit, and what they need to do to exploit the investment to support the business.

     

    The answers to these questions are detailed and different depending upon different roles.  So, getting people involved in understanding business strategies and creating line of sight between local activities and the bigger picture requires an approach to communication that is conversation based.  Conversations are radically different from a traditional cascade approach in which leaders and managers tell people about a new strategy or vision.

     

    A cascade process tells people about the direction the business aims to go.  A conversation challenges people to think about the role they play in delivering the strategy.  While the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, they have very different characteristics across a number of dimensions.

     

     

    Dimension Cascade communication  Conversation
    1.     Desired outcome Awareness and high-level understanding Ownership of strategy and relevance at local level
    2.     Primary objective Build awareness of vision and strategy Build understanding of what vision and strategy means for the business and individuals; establish “line of sight”
    3.     Approach to content and delivery Rational explanation and logic; presentations, video, slides Logic and emotion; pictures, stories, scenarios to prompt debate
    4.     Direction Mainly top-down with questions Mainly lateral within and across teams
    5.     Typical format Large meetings and Town Halls Breakouts and smaller group discussions
    6.     Manager’s role Articulate and defend message Tell story and ask questions
    7.     Evaluation criteria Quality of delivery, levels of awareness Quality of conversation, levels of ownership, commitment and appropriate actions

     

     

    The irony is that most business leaders want the outcome and the objectives identified at the top of the table in the right-hand column, but adopt approaches highlighted in the middle column.   Moving to conversation-based approaches involves using techniques other than the Town Hall to help people internalise the messages.  Companies need platforms to use with small groups that both convey the big picture in relevant and engaging ways and that prompt teams to ask relevant questions about the way they work.

     

    There are many different ways to create these kinds of conversations, but they all require balancing the strategic vision with the local application.  Using a picture and listening to what people think about the strategy, rather than talking at them, is more memorable, tailored, relevant, tangible, and avoids jargon.  It is also more involving and as a platform to support a conversation a picture provides an opportunity for people to relate the big picture to the work that they do.  This shifts the communication dynamic from “telling” to “exploring” and enables people to relate their work to the strategy and to talk to each other about how their work currently does, or does not, deliver on the intentions raised in the picture.

     

    This capacity to help build “line of sight” means that a conversation approach provides a more long-lasting, effective and impactful approach than the cascade in which groups come together to be talked at about the strategy.

     

    Image acknowledgement: Another great David Gifford illustration

     

    Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

    It is much harder to listen effectively than most of us realise, and we tend to think we listen well when perhaps we don’t.  Effective listening is so important not only for personal relationships (who wants a friend who never listens) but also for building trust in healthy organisations.

     

    For example, leaders encourage people to “speak up” yet often express frustration about the silence that follows requests for ideas or challenges.  But maybe the challenge lies in how leaders listen rather than in some deficit on the part of employees.

     

    The importance of Psychological Safety

     

    When researching how organisations listen to their employees “psychological safety” often emerges as a core theme. 1   Psychological safety is the belief that you won’t be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes. 2

     

    Encouraging a culture in which people feel free to speak up is important for at least three reasons:

     

    1. Motivation: listening creates a sense of belonging by confirming that everyone’s view is welcome
    2. Risk Management: listening increases the ability to identify and spot problems that people will feel free to raise; and reduces the risks of future mistakes being made, harm being done and reputations damaged
    3. Change management: listening increases the likelihood that teams and organisations can change and innovate by welcoming ideas that challenge how things get done.

    There is a circularity between speaking up and listening up – see the diagram below.  Team leaders need to take the initiative to encourage people to speak up by creating safe team spaces at a micro level.  At the macro or organisational level, the leader needs to create a listening strategy and culture that encourages and celebrates employee voice.

     

    I’ve spent years listening to leaders, managers, employees and special interest groups (e.g., high potential managers, union representatives) talking about communication at work.  Recently I’ve run international surveys and focus groups with Dr Kevin Ruck (PR Academy founder) and Howard Krais (Communication Director, Johnson Matthey) in which we have focused on how organisations listen.   I’ve also spent time recently talking to some respected colleagues who work in management and leadership to explore what they see as the barriers to listening up (see acknowledgements below).

     

    I’ve captured below the things that stand out, and some of the things that organisations can do to make it easier for people to listen effectively.

     

    What makes listening up hard?

     

    1. Closed minds

     

    The biggest barrier to listening, and by implication to insight and new ideas, is the simple fact that people often enter a conversation with their minds made up.  If people have fixed views, the narrative in their heads constantly filters whatever they hear.  In our second and fourth “Who’s Listening” reports we looked at best listening practice at an organisational and individual level, and “Open Mindsets” emerged as a critical enabler in both.

     

    During times of change at work listening is particularly critical.  However, leaders and managers are the champions of whatever change is needed.  This makes it even more likely that they will be preparing a response or a “solution” to any pushback or objections, making it harder for them to listen and making others feel that speaking up will make no difference to the course of action under discussion.

     

    1. Bias  

     

    People are biased – their brains are designed to create shortcuts to aid decision making and for protection.  For example, people form “in-groups” with those who share common goals and are more disposed to listen to those they think are like them.  The familiar problem of organisation silos – in which information flows poorly across organisational boundaries – often has an in-group mentality as a contributory cause. The ability to listen is affected by, often unconscious, bias.   Tell-tale phrases that bias is limiting listening include “They would say that” or “I know what they will say”.  As a result, people from other departments, levels or countries find it more difficult to be heard and are likely to speak up less.  Or, voices may become more strident and the conversation becomes adversarial rather than constructive.

     

    On the flip side, bringing in external agents with perceived expertise can improve their impact, even if their recommendations are no different from internal agents.

     

    1. Power

     

    One particular form of bias that is highly relevant to the challenge of listening up is concerned with power.  Power affects relationships and interferes with the capacity to listen.  People who have power over others find it easier to be heard.  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective.  Our brains have evolved to take heed of more powerful members of the tribe.   But for a leader it works in reverse increasing the difficulty of really listening to those over whom the leader has power. 4

     

    There may be various explanations for this.  For example, do leaders believe they need to be hard-nosed because they have to take difficult and unpopular decisions and empathetic listening may make it harder to make these decisions?  They also face competition for their time amongst those over whom they have power, and rationing listening is a necessary coping strategy.

     

     

    1. Risk

     

    Listening up is taking some risk as an individual (in the same way that speaking up involves risk).  These risks essentially involve perceived challenges to one’s credibility, status or position and involve fears about exposing oneself to ridicule.  For example, what if:

    • I do not know the answer to a question?
    • I say something in response that is contradicted by others or more senior colleagues?
    • I’m presented with a need that cannot be met?
    • I unearth mixed and irreconcilable perspectives, and open a Pandora’s Box of insoluble dilemmas?
    • I make myself look weak and out of control to others in more senior positions?

     

    These concerns may identify some narrow and false perspectives about what it means to be a good leader.  But what matters is that they drive how people behave.  Not speaking up is normally based on an assumption that an individual risks exposing him or herself to ridicule or censure if they do speak up.  Likewise, not listening up can also be based on assumptions about how I will appear to others.

     

    1. Lack of self-awareness

     

    The fifth barrier is poor self-awareness involving the perception that people listen well when they do not.  Research in the NHS and elsewhere identifies the self-enhancement bias in which we rate our own competence at listening higher than others. 5 In other words, we think we listen well but we do not.  This “blind spot” means that those who most need help to improve the way they listen are least aware of the need.   Some of the issues here can include:

     

    • The lack of appreciation that power has a major impact on those without it. Leaders need to work to make others feel safe to speak their mind (“My door is always open” just reminds people that there is a door)
    • As mentioned above, those with power discount the perceptions of those over whom they have power
    • Failure to appreciate the reasons why it makes more sense for people not to speak up. 6  Given this, leaders and managers need to guard their responses and reactions carefully when they are listening and work hard to help people to speak up.

     

     

    What can make listening up easier?

     

    In order for people to speak up, managers and leaders need to listen up well.  To do so they need to:

     

    1. Frame the need for listening
    2. Set the right role models
    3. Use listening tactics
    4. Adopt a listening mindset and behaviours
    5. Act upon what they have heard and communicate what has been done.

     

    Leadership needs to take responsibility for creating the environment in which the following can take place.

     

    Frame the need for listening

     

    • One of the key roles of the leadership team is to frame the overall need for listening, and the conversations that establish this require some careful thinking through of when and why listening is important. The goal is to position listening as critical to the organisation’s success, explaining why speaking up is important and how it links to the organisations’ purpose.  This will vary by industry.  For example: in healthcare effective listening and speaking up may increase patient safety; in manufacturing it may support innovation; in service businesses it may increase customer insight.7
    • Helping the leadership team to recognise the need for this framing may involve using internal or external data to highlight the issue, and reflection within the team around individual biases and assumptions. Scenarios and case studies can be helpful tools, while getting the team to explore listening with each other can highlight some valuable lessons for the team and individuals
    • Be clear about what and when listening is important. For example: listen for ideas and input to change management but not to strategy (once decisions have been made).  Listen when the input is needed and avoid ‘false democracy.’  Along with this, ensure that leaders and managers take ownership of decisions that have been made which means that they need to understand them and their rationale.

     

    Set the right role models

     

    • The example set by managers and leaders signals what behaviour is valued. The most important requirements for listening well include:
      • Responding appropriately to ideas, which may include rejecting them.   The need is always to respect the contribution and the person providing the input; be it challenge, idea or disclosure.  If the idea is just dismissed or the person is criticised or ridiculed others will not provide input.
      • Speaking up by challenging and debating to encourage others, and asking others for input
      • Showing vulnerability by relating events and stories in which the manager or leader themselves made mistakes, and emphasising lessons learned.
    • To develop the ability to respond well, work with the leadership on challenges and objections that they fear meeting with their teams and employees. Working on these key implementation of strategy questions can help develop much more sensitive and empathetic responses that helps sustain the strategy while involving employees in discussions around the issues that concern them.

     

    Use listening tactics

     

    • Ask open questions that cannot be answered with yes/no responses
    • Develop familiarity with structured sessions that encourage people to speak up. This could include using methodology and techniques from Appreciative Inquiry 8 and the Technology of Participation 9
    • Other approaches to engage people in better conversations about the business and strategy include Open Space, Future Search, World Café and Big Conversation, Engagement Café and Knowledge Café
    • Break people into small groups or pairs to discuss reflections on what they have heard and questions they might like to ask before inviting them to post or raise questions in open forums
    • Prepare for questions in advance of meetings to help think through responses and as a leader or manager reduce the potential threat posed by questions that people will ask
    • Listen in pairs to support each other and check that all the subtleties behind questions are picked up. Listening in pairs is especially helpful when listening to large groups
    • Build internal networks so that managers and leaders can share stories and examples of the sorts of issues and questions people in the business want to discuss

     

    Adopt a listening mindset and behaviours

     

    • The art of listening involves not just hearing what others are saying but empathising with others’ feelings and seeking to understand others intentions. It’s not possible to listen well without building relationships – the two go hand in hand
    • Create listening spaces and listen all the time. Listening is an “always on” function of leadership and management.  While listening during meetings and the everyday act of running the business, set up spaces dedicated to giving people the opportunity to talk about what is on their minds
    • Recognise that people do not always want answers to all the questions. They want to feel that they are being listened to and that their questions or suggestions are valued.  Sometimes the question is more of a test to evaluate the ability of the manager or leader to handle the difficult question.
    • Ask for feedback on how people experience listening to increase self-awareness and to encourage discussion about the art of listening.

     

    Act upon what they have heard and communicate what has been done

     

    • During the research we conducted into listening a consistent concern was the perception that when people put forward their views, they hear no follow-up nor learn of any actions or decisions that have been made based upon their input. The perceived lack of response is a major barrier to speaking up because people feel it is pointless.  Yet at the same time I know many leadership teams that express astonishment at the idea that the findings from listening activities are ignored.  Leaders often point to initiatives and decisions that stem directly from employee input.  The trouble is that the connection between feedback and action gets missed.  It is critical for leaders to ensure that they make the connection between what has been heard and what has been done, even if – as is usually the case – that action is based upon further discussion and deliberation prompted by the feedback, rather than a simple “you said, we did” type response.

     

     

    Listening up is not about feeling comfortable

     

    When talking about creating safety for those listening one of my colleagues made the astute point that the leadership role when listening is not about feeling comfortable.  Getting pushback and objections from a group illustrates successful listening because the leader has encouraged speaking up.  The leader benefits too because the input of different perspectives and alternative ideas enriches the quality of decision-making and the feeling of trust within groups.

     

    So, when leaders get pushback and objections, the leader needs to congratulate the group for its courage and remember that the response that the leader gives to the next question or challenge is the test of his or her listening.  Effective listening up involves recognising that what matters is always the response to the next question.

     

    Notes

     

    1. Who’s Listening Research Report 1 2020; Couravel; PR Academy. Speak Up; Megan Reitz and John Higgins; FT Publishing 2019
    2. Source: What Is Psychological Safety at Work; Centre for Creative Leadership
    3. Who’s Listening Update 2 (2021) and Update 3 (2022); Couravel; PR Academy.
    4. Power and Perspectives not Taken; Galinsky, Psychological Science, 2006
    5. Speaking Truth to Power: Why Leaders Cannot Hear What They Need to Hear; Megan Reitz and John Higgins, British Medical Journal, Oct 2020
    6. The Fearless Organisation; Amy Edmondson, Wiley 2019
    7. A thorough exploration of the importance of framing is provided by Amy Edmondson: The Fearless Organisation; Wiley 2019
    8. See for example Appreciative Inquiry for Change Management; Lewis, Passmore and Cantore; Kogan page 2008
    9. The Institute of Cultural Affairs provides a starting point for Technology of Participation stories, tools and training: https://ica-uk.org.uk/about-ica/

     

     Acknowledgements

     

    A number of people helped by agreeing to talk to me about their experiences of listening up and I am extremely grateful for their input and support.  I take full responsibility for the content but I would like to acknowledge those who helped and the particular insights they provided:

     

    • Sheila Hirst, Authentic Leadership and Storytelling Coach who provided particular insights around the importance of self-awareness and openness as a key requirement for effective listening
    • John Holmes, Chief Examiner, ABRSM whose listening credentials extend to the professional leadership of a disparate and specialist group of musicians and teachers
    • Martin Horton, Leadership and Team Coach who differentiated feeling comfortable from feeling safe, and made the point that the leaders listening role involves generating challenge and support
    • Jane Mitchell, IABC Fellow and LDA Design Trust Chair who highlighted the importance of the leader displaying vulnerability and framing the importance of listening, and who helped bring out the importance of a visible response as a key enabler of speaking up
    • Simon Monger, President IABC UK&I, and Internal Communications, Change + Engagement Consultant at Simon Monger Ltd. Simon signalled the risks involved in listening up, and during online conversations identified the challenge that people often overate their listening abilities
    • Andrew Morrison, Director of Corporate Affairs and Communications who told me some helpful stories about the importance of anticipating questions and listening in pairs, and the need for courage to lead from the front
    • Ben Selby, Director, Epigeum (part of Oxford University Press).  Ben highlighted the importance of owning decisions and being clear about the importance of integrity when listening, and not practising false democracy
    • David Smith, PSC Tech Lead – Consumer Healthcare Separation, GSK who highlighted how important support networks are when listening and emphasised the need to establish good relationships in order to help people feel that they can speak up.

     

     

     

     

    Have you ever experienced this: the team has gone away for a couple of days for a deep dive into their vision and plans for the future?   They return full of enthusiasm and ready to brief their teams on the way forward.

     

    Only to find they are met with a host of reasons why the plan won’t work, and resistance to change.   They push back with answers to the objections but the game is lost because the leadership never involved those who have to make the change happen in the planning process.

     

    If yours is like many organisations, the leadership team then regroups with new information and insights from their teams that should have been factored in to the planning stage in the first case.  They decide that they have not been clear enough on the need to change and rear-guard action is mobilised as the new data is incorporated into a revised set of plans which the leadership team then aims to implement.  Momentum is lost, and the team acknowledges that they hadn’t taken into account some key factors.  What is sad is that confidence in leadership falls not because the plan was unworkable but because the leadership did not think to listen to their teams before shaping it.

     

    If this is familiar don’t feel that you’re on your own; it is symptomatic of how planning takes place at multiple levels in many organisations in which not enough attention is paid to the perspectives and views of those who actually get the work done.

     

    One of the benefits of the pandemic and the rapid adoption of agile thinking into the way we work is that we are learning the importance of listening to people in order to come up with feasible plans.

     

    For example, a leading systems engineering business has used the experiences of people during the pandemic to create a new vision for ways of working post-pandemic.  It makes sense to talk to the people about their perspectives of the good things that came out of remote working.  Their insights on what made it more difficult and what made it easier has to shape the way forward.  100 people from all levels of the business contributed using an open process in which everyone’s voice carried equal weight. After crunching the data the emerging vision was illustrated in order to provide a narrative and emotional depth; helping others to see the vision in a tangible way and to think about what it meant for them.

     

    We’ve got to get better at listening to people and incorporating multiple perspectives into future plans in order to survive in the rapidly changing workplace and highly competitive market places in which our organisations now need to compete.

     

    Listening needs to be at the core of this.  It helped get us through the pandemic and it is going to help get us through the next phase for a number of reasons:

    • Listening to people increases their sense of belonging, confirms that their opinion is valued and builds subsequent commitment to future plans
    • The plans won’t be “full of holes” because those who understand customers, operations and their own needs have helped to create it
    • A listening process creates better ideas, insights and plans because it reflects a diverse range of views
    • Listening is the right thing to do in this day and age as companies need to show a real commitment to inclusivity at work – not just for reputation but because it makes business sense.

     

    We’ve never had more tools to help us with the way we listen to our employees but despite the range of digital apps the thing that differentiates the high performers – those who listen really well – is open and curious minds. We need processes and tools to bring together bottom-up views and leadership to co-create new thinking.  These tools may include big conversations in which everyone gets involved in shaping the future of the company, open space, future search, engagement cafes or other meeting methods that bring together people. We can do it rapidly and we can do it remotely as a result of the lessons from the pandemic. It’s critical that all organisations adopt these kinds of approaches to bring people’s views together.

     

    The role of leadership is to provide the long-term vision, to monitor the external environment and to ask questions that help people to speak up.

     

    Acknowledgement: David Gifford for his excellent cartoon

     

     

    The more people understand purpose, vision and strategy, and appreciate how they support these, the more likely it is that the organisation will deliver effectively.   This makes intuitive sense and is borne out by consistent correlations between employee engagement and performance.  Understanding of purpose and strategy, and my contribution, is a recurring theme in employee engagement metrics.

     

    But how to make this high-level communication engaging, so that people feel inspired and motivated to participate, and to take ownership of higher-level goals?  The advantage of a visual approach is that it is more attractive and engaging.

     

    Contrast the two images below.  The first is an outline that shows a vision built on three core themes supported by specific objectives (some of the detail has been omitted to protect confidentiality).  The one that follows is a picture telling a story featuring vision, strategy, objectives and tactics.

    TUI Communicating strategic goals

     

    Numerous businesses use imagery like the first above: a house, a temple with pillars, a pyramid, or a series of circles.     These images conceptualise at a high level and aim to convey the linkages between these different concepts; e.g., how the objectives support different strategies; how values underpin behaviours etc.

    In contrast the second image – the island picture – conveys a narrative telling a story for this travel business of the company’s history, why it needs to change, the key themes in its strategy, how different parts of the business contribute, the high-level objectives and the vision.

    The visual looks different and is more colourful and appealing.  It draws people in to examine detail.  There is no jargon in the picture, no “corporate speak” and because it is visual it works across language barriers.  Because it is more accessible it works across multiple levels and provides an ideal platform for talking about the story that it illustrates.  Moreover, by asking simple questions managers can involve people in thinking about their own stories and how they fit in this bigger picture.

    A picture also reduces cognitive load for people because it makes the concepts more tangible.  It illustrates, for example: what competitiveness looks like; how customers will interact with future systems; what HR policies will deliver to employees; what capital investments will deliver to the business, etc.

    Because the visual and narrative engages multiple circuits in our brains, it increases the likelihood that people will empathise with whoever is leading the conversation.  A manager presenting bullet points and words is more likely to encourage critical responses and resistance; a picture and story triggers emotions and helps people see different perspectives.

    We have found visualising purpose, vision and strategy helps to involve people in conversations about the heritage, purpose and future of the business, and that this approach works well in many different types of organisation.  For example:

    • A global engineering business visualised its vision for new ways of working post-pandemic to involve leaders and managers in discussions about how to shift to new operating models
    • A global charity visualised its culture to engage employees in discussions about behaviours and ethics
    • A global travel business involved 70,000 employees in head office, airline and destination locations to explore how they all contributed to supporting the achievement of global objectives
    • A global medical devices business conducted virtual and face to face conversations for 9,000 employees working from home and in manufacturing operations to share a new strategy and explore actions teams could take to support the goals

    Lessons from this include that a central visual is important because it is more memorable and the conversations people have around it creates line of sight as teams discuss their role in delivering the objectives.   The questions managers pose help focus inquiry, and people find a visual approach attractive.  It makes it easier for people to discuss by making intangible concepts real and relevant, helping people to devote more energy to considering the implications of strategy for the work that they do, and how they support the strategy.

    I’d like to acknowledge David Gifford from Inscript Designs for his great cartoon at the top of this post!