Deep listening organisations



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


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