Five things that differentiate great listening organisations

Recent global research I conducted with Howard Krais, Dr Kevin Ruck and the IABC Foundation established that in over 550 organisations effective listening delivers more innovation, better change management and the creation of a sense of fairness. As we emerge from the pandemic these outcomes are going to be critical for all employers.

We also found that the large scale annual survey represented the default approach to listening to employees. In our webinars we’ve been arguing that people are overlooking the value of qualitative approaches like focus groups and interviews.

To test that assertion I’ve looked at what differentiates the few organisations that do use focus groups – both face to face and online – on an ongoing basis and compared them to all others. The results suggest these companies are “stellar listeners”, illustrating that the use of tools like focus groups are symptomatic of a deeper cultural approach that values listening more highly and that generates more value from listening activities. Five key insights emerge about how they plan, measure, mitigate bias, adopt a listening mindset and create deep listening cultures.

  1. Planning

Planning to listen was identified as a relative weakness in the research we conducted. Many organisations talk about having an open mindset and valuing employee voice but less than half said that they actually plan carefully to ensure listening happens throughout their organisation. Our stellar listeners appear very different with 84% saying that they plan listening carefully and 88% (vs 54%) balancing messaging and listening within communication plans. As one of the respondents put it:

“A dedicated working group made up of volunteers across the business and led by our Head of Comms and Engagement is currently working on our new engagement eco-system taking feedback into account.”

  1. Measurement

Over 80% of our sub-group measure satisfaction with listening (86%) and claim that they use data from listening to improve performance ( 84%). The average figure is 54% and 57% respectively.

  1. Mitigate bias

One of the challenges about listening to employees is the problem of bias. How do you prevent negative views dominating feedback and reach through to ensure that the voice heard represents the – often silent – majority? The sub-group we identified stand out for employing a range of methods to ensure that they collect views across the spectrum of employees. They not only use focus groups but also are much greater users of

  • Large (hence the ability to measure) and ‘pulse’ surveys (e.g. 15% of companies use short pulse surveys on specific topics on an ongoing basis, but 47% of the stellar listeners do)
  • Monitoring discussions on internal digital platforms (59% of stellar listeners do this, only 32% of others)
  • 40% of those who use online focus groups regularly also run online leadership events to listen to employees. For most organisations the contrast is that only 9% use online leadership events on an ongoing basis.

Collecting data across a range of approaches mitigates the risk of hearing biased perspectives. Asked about the benefits of listening

  • One of our respondents commented that it: “Minimises resistance, mitigates risk and helps implement change more smoothly.” 
  • Another commented that their range of listening activities generate “Greater variety of ideas and opinions.” 
  • Many talked about the importance of listening ensuring more effective management of diversity and creating a more inclusive way of working: “You get a greater sense of the company working as a team (hard with 60,000 employees in over 30 countries) and feel closer to the decision making.”
  1. A listening mindset

The most striking difference is not the channels that great listening organisations use, but the mindset and culture that have developed and shaped the use of the channels. Compare these responses:

  • 90% of respondents from the good listening organisations agree that senior managers in their organisations respond to what employees say – the figure is 66% elsewhere
  • When asked about listening out for the emotional content of feedback there is a positive difference of 31% in favour of those organisations that are good listeners
  • 74% of respondents in good listening organisations say that they ensure senior leaders are effective listeners vs 44% amongst others
  • On average 26% of our respondents thought that their managers are more comfortable in listening to employees on digital platforms than in other settings. For regular users of on line focus groups the figure was 48%. This is important because our research established that employees are more comfortable speaking up on digital platforms than others. In other words, managers in these organisations appear more tuned in to the way listening needs to evolve to meet the changing needs of employees who are more comfortable using digital media at work.
  1. Stellar listeners are deep listeners

We characterised a listening spectrum covering different listening styles in our earlier report: passive, active, sensitive and deep listening styles. There is more on this here. Deep listening supports the facilitation of change and reflects a more co-creative style of leadership.

I found that the biggest differences between most of the respondents and the good listeners concerned questions about deep listening. For example, in good listeners 83% agree that they involve employees in important decisions about the future and 90% listen to improve how the business is run. The comparative figures are 39% and 55%.

One of the good listeners described their approach as follows:

“Regular crowdsourcing of ideas via Workplace. We’ve had a couple now. One to help shape our 5 and 10 year strategies and one to help our post-Covid ways of working (what we’ve learned,and how to implement it going forward). In each case the thousands of responses were available to all for support and comment and Senior Leaders were each given a topic areas to supervise and report on.”

Another described how a new Chief People Officer approached the leadership of change:

“Through working out loud and working sessions (open to volunteers) she was able to create a whole change programme, which has been entirely led by our people. The changes are massive, yet the business is happy to undergo them as they were involved on every step of the way and had more than once the chance to provide feedback or help shape the new solutions.”


As we emerge from the pandemic the pressure for growth is becoming intense again. Listening is a critical enabler of change and good listeners use a variety to approaches to engage their people in the process. We can learn from these approaches and use qualitative and digital listening to help deliver much greater insights into how well our organisations are working and how effective communication is. The depth and the frequency of the way we listen provides an important indicator of the leadership culture and mindset. Listening helps to generate new ideas, create good places to work and drive change. Listening is not just the preserve of leadership but needs to be planned in at all levels of the business to reap significant benefits.


Mike Pounsford

I help design and lead conversations for change. Some of the tools that develop more effective listening practices are:

  • Listening Audit to benchmark strengths and weaknesses
  • “Listen up” – a workshop to build listening capability amongst leaders and managers; and that can be adapted to develop listening champions
  • Insight Groups to train others to lead Deep Dives into organisational issues such as improving quality, compliance, communication, engagement or other key topics

Other approaches that help support change include:

  • Engagement Cafés and Ideas Exchange to involve people in developing solutions
  • Visioning Workshops to co-create future visions and strategy
  • Hot Spots which is a process for transforming performance from the bottom up
  • Big Conversation to build line of sight to strategy
  • Bushcraft – a set of tools to equip change agents with skills


Here is our latest Listening Report that features the results of our Global Research into how organisations listen to their employees.  Conducted with Howard Krais and Dr Kevin Ruck the report is based on the views of over 500 organisations.


Key themes are that:

  • Good listening is linked to the effective management of change and innovation
  • Organisations still rely on surveys and miss the value of insights from conversational approaches
  • The potential for digital listening is significant yet undeveloped
  • Leadership listening is more strongly associated with positive outcomes than line manager listening – leaders set the tone and make the difference
  • We tend to think we are better at listening than we are

Click here to download the report.






During the research we conducted into Listening across Europe, we became increasingly convinced that:


  1. Effective listening has a direct impact on both the performance of a business and the wellbeing of the people who work within it
  2. Listening has to be developed at a systemic level, rather than adopting ad hoc approaches
  3. Communicators have the opportunity to make a significant difference by shifting the balance from an emphasis on transmitting messages to an emphasis on receiving and understanding the voice of employees


We were invited by Lansons Communications to discuss our work for their podcast.  Here is a recording of the conversation between Megan Murray-Jones, Howard Krais, Mike Pounsford, and Dr. Kevin Ruck.


Click here to hear the recording



The Listening Project is a collaboration with Howard Krais and Dr. Kevin Ruck.  As well as our reports (see two recent conversations on this site), the survey across Europe, Middle East and Africa and various webinars and workshops we are shortly launching a global Listening Survey.


What motivates us is the belief that organisations can improve performance, innovation, resilience, and wellbeing by listening effectively to their people.  Our work with the IABC Foundation is helping supply the evidence and stories to back up the claim.

PR Academy and Couravel are running an online course commencing July 2020 and repeating a number of times for experienced communicators and HR professionals to develop the Listening Capabilities of their organisations.

Link to report: –

Couravel_Listening_Report_Project_2_Good Practice

I’m delighted to share the results of the second report that Howard Krais, Dr. Kevin Ruck and I have published.  With the help of the IABC Foundation we have spoken to serial winners of the Gold Quill, a rigorously evaluated International Communicators’ Award.  To win a Gold Quill entrants have to demonstrate how their work is grounded in a thorough analysis of audience and business needs.  Serial winners represent an excellent proxy for organisations that excel at listening to their people.


This report summarises the stories and principles we learned from them.  It also provides a comprehensive overview of Listening Tools that people can use to generate great conversations within their businesses.


We also feature the Listening Spectrum to help think about the kind of approach to take given different objectives.


Who’s listening?


A small scale research project exploring how organisations listen to employees


“Who’s Listening?” features the results of the research that we conducted into the state of organisational listening across EMENA with the International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and PR Academy.

The report’s insights include:

  1. Effective listening to employees is seen to deliver a more competitive organisation, a greater sense of employee engagement and advocacy (reducing reputational risk), more trust in leadership, greater innovation and openness to change, resilience, learning and well-being
  2. “Fear” is a major barrier to listening for both employees and leaders.  It is not just speaking truth to power that can inhibit employees.  Some leaders and managers avoid creating important listening opportunities because they fear exposure to uncertainty and questions that they feel they cannot but should be able to answer
  3. Listening that focuses on strategic and operational goals will enhance traction for listening initiatives.  In other words, to gain support for listening activities they need to focus on drivers of growth and performance, or on factors that could reduce risk (e.g. how to increase compliance).  This helps build leaders’ confidence in the importance and value of listening.
  4. At the same time leaders that create face to face sessions to meet and talk without set agendas build employees’ confidence in leadership and trust in the business
  5. Surveys need visible and transparent feedback and response mechanisms that demonstrate the impact that they are having.  Surveys have become common place and in some cases a scorecard rather than a positive tool to increase effectiveness

Download your copy of the report here.

Employee listening research report

Developing listening organisations for the 21st Century Listening matters Listening is important. 98% of people agree listening to stakeholder groups is a critical communication competence and 89% say the insights they bring from listening are of strategic importance.1 Listening matters for: Responsiveness and survival2 The speed at which industries and markets are changing means we need […]

How and why to use the story of your business to build engagement and purpose


The birth of the business and the founders’ hopes highlight the DNA.  The early and crises years add colour, athenticity and credibility.  The recent past acknowledges the importance of current people and sets up a discussion of what needs to change.  Click here for the guide on mapping history.


What can you do to make people happier at work?

The focus for a knowledge cafe1 (facilitated by David Gurteen at Portcullis House in Westminster) threw up some valuable insights and reflections.

James Brown the business psychologist kicked off with some personal stories and highlights of the growth in poor mental health identified by the CIPD.  For example, in 2017, 55% of organisations in 2017 reported mental health conditions have increased.  The figure was 41% in 2016.

The knowledge cafe itself led to a great conversation.  James has posted about it here.  What I took from it was:

  • How important it is for each of us to think about our personal purpose and find ways to integrate what we do at work with who we are
      • Aimee Campbell from Unilever told me about some of the work that they were doing to encourage people to reflect on their own personal purpose and what it meant for them.  
  • The importance of celebrating success and learning from what we do well 
      • James Brown talked about the work the NHS is doing to Learn from Excellence and find ways to report positively so that the organisation learns and so that people recognise what is great about their work, and not be subsumed by the stresses and challenges of everyday work and some of the negative press that surrounds mistakes
  • Giving people a voice 
      • Some one said that there is nothing like a change programme to silence peoples’ voices.  
      • We debated the difficulty during change work of of being open to listening while maintaining a new course, and how leaders need to remember to keep re-stating the reasons and rationale for change so that people do not lose sight of that even, as they do not like some of the implications for how it affects them
  • The problems caused by social media 
      • Social media encourages people to value immediacy, fame and “good news” rather than reflection, substance and reality (note to self: what do you expect a bunch of people involved in a knowledge cafe to value?).  Does this contribute to the rise in poor mental health highlighted by James Brown at the start of the meeting? 
  • Less face time:
      • It is getting more and more difficult to give people face to face time in a global, digital business environment.  How can we mitigate the problems this causes?  How can we make time for it, or improve the digital experience so that our group screen to screen time offers the same value as group face to face time.  Is this even possible?

On this last point David Gurteen talked about how he was using Zoom to get high value conversations using the Knowledge Cafe methodology.

1 A final word to plug David Gurteen’s knowledge cafe.  This is an open, conversation based approach to learning.  Responding to a core question – e.g. what can you do to make people happier at work? – people gain insights in multiple small conversations followed by a plenary round circle.  It is a very powerful approach for personal learning. 

#knowledgecafe #mentalhealth #employeeengagement #resonantleadership