Why listening matters – 9 reasons to listen to employees

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


+44 7860 196343




  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)



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