Creating a Listening Organisation

Effective listening to employees is undervalued, and a poorly understood and supported leadership discipline. Improving it will have significant benefits not only for employees but also for the performance and overall health of most organisations. These conclusions feature in the book I co-authored with Kevin Ruck and Howard Krais: Leading the Listening Organisation: Creating Organisations that Flourish

The reputational problems experienced by Boeing for safety, the Post Office for its treatment of sub-postmasters, the NHS for patient safety and the MOD for safeguarding women employees all share a disturbing feature. Employees in each were raising problems about these issues but were not heard. If the issues had been addressed earlier, lives may have been saved and hugely expensive reputational damage and financial consequences avoided.

These high-profile examples represent particularly negative examples of a more endemic problem. In our organisations we struggle to listen well. The need to avoid risks is one reason, but there are many more that make listening critical now.

The Age of Listening
The post pandemic world of work requires close attention to the needs and preferences of employees for organisations to remain competitive as an employer. Leaders are recognising that the employee experience is as critical as the customer experience and, as with customers, you need to listen to them to understand the things they value. The Environmental, Social and Governance agenda also places a premium on the way organisations listen to their employees to demonstrate responsible practices and to reassure regulators and other stakeholders that the employee voice plays a part in decision-making. Younger employees appear particularly concerned about how organisations listen to them and, growing up in a digital world, expect their employers to use technology as a tool to invite their input and to share information. These trends, explored in depth in my book (co-authored with Howard Krais and Kevin Ruck), suggest today is an age when listening to employees is more important than ever.

How leaders need to listen
Perhaps more importantly, it is clear from all our research that listening is primarily about leadership. The way leaders define listening, link it to performance, set good listening examples, support each other to listen well, and help their managers, all play a major role in creating organisations that can flourish.

Whatever processes companies use, if it is going to be done well there needs to be an underlying recognition of the value of listening to employees. Yes, of course, from the top down, but equally through everyday interactions and meetings, listening has to be part of the DNA of ‘how we do things round here.’

A listening climate
To create a listening climate like this, managers need to understand why listening matters and what good listening looks like. This involves much more than the familiar behaviours identified in training courses to a deep-rooted understanding that good listening means making people feel heard.

But managers themselves need to feel heard so that when challenging issues arise, they feel that they can raise them with their leadership. Our data confirmed that there is a higher correlation between how senior leaders listen and positive organisational outcomes than how line managers listen.

This brings us back to leadership and their core role in creating listening climates. It is not easy. Just like any other people leaders are subject to bias, much of it unconscious, that makes listening selective and filtered. They probably over-estimate their listening skills and, like most of us, assume their view of the workplace is the ‘right’ one. They find it difficult to listen rather than waiting to speak and they mostly spent a career getting promoted because of their ability to find answers and solve organisational problems. Listening has never been a requirement for promotion – indeed we found that only just over 1 in 10 of our respondents agreed that their organisations only promote leaders who listen.

Creating listening organisations that make better decisions and avoid catastrophic failures need teams of leaders who are good listeners. Leaders need coaching, encouragement and support to develop their listening skills, and processes that help them avoid the trappings of power that can make listening even harder when you are at the top.

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