Listening Strategies and Conversation
Many companies have moved from event-based employee surveys to ongoing listening, but that’s only part of the change you need to make.
“The conversational firm works because even as the organisation retains a conventional decision-making structure, the decisions themselves are shaped and shifted by the conversational environment and the employee voices within it.” — Catherine Turco
“To reclaim conversation, we have to be explicit and make conversation a value at every level of an organisation. And in organisations of every size.” — Sherry Turkle
It’s been something of a HR mantra over the last years: “We need to shift from an engagement survey to a continuous listening strategy.”
I’m not complaining; this is my kind of discussion.
I’ve been moaning about poor engagement surveys for a long time. I believe in the power of active listening.
At a surface level, this isn’t even a difficult change. Continue with some kind of engagement measure. Add in more agile pulse surveys. Organise your joiner and leaver surveys. Do people analytics to connect the dots. Mix in behavioural data. Bingo.
The starting point for a lot of discussions about listening is technology. Again, great! At WTW we have awesome new technology for collecting and acting on employee feedback and for analysing employee journeys and the link to performance. I love talking about technology and analytics.
But there’s a niggle.
The discussion isn’t starting in the right place.
The focus is on events and I know this is the shallowest level of analysis. We need to back-up and talk about some of the underlying assumptions. “HR — What’s the problem you’re really trying to solve?”
I posit that the issue leaders are trying to address when they start a discussion about continuous listening is really: “How do we build trust and encourage employee voice?”
Both are key to tackling your biggest business challenges, such as improving productivity, encouraging innovation, and delivering outstanding customer experiences. And they matter more than ever.
In an experience economy, human insight and creativity alongside technology provide your competitive edge. You have to involve people in coming up with ideas and implementing them. This is why employee experience (EX) is so high on leaders’ agenda.
But for many employees voice doesn’t come easily. It’s a pro-social or extra-role behaviour, outside of the formal responsibilities of a job. When psychological safety and engagement are low, employees are inhibited from speaking up and default to silence.
Moreover, traditional leadership is hierarchical and top-down. Expertise, it’s felt, resides at the top or in specific functions. The idea of trusting front-line employees to drive change is a shift in perspective.
The point is that you can have the world’s best listening strategy and technology, but in itself that’s not enough. What’s required is a change in mindset. We need to talk about that too.
Types of voice
In this regard, I’ve always liked Bill Gorden’s two-spectrum model of communications that was developed back in 1988. (I know, I’m old-school.) He asked a simple question: To what extent is feedback active or passive and how much is it encouraged or directed?
It’s a useful framework for thinking about types of employee voice. It’s also a tool for coaching leaders and helping them have better conversations.
I have a twist on Bill’s 2x2 as I focus on trust and involvement (as shown in the figure at the top). Let me work through the boxes.
When trust is low and people don’t feel involved, the tendency is to keep as quiet as possible. Many traditional engagement surveys fall down here. Companies in this box probably run surveys for appearances sake (think: top-employer lists) or because they have to. They hardly ever lead to meaningful changes. For employees there’s no incentive to stick your head above the parapet. Why would you put your ideas forward? It will probably just cause problems.
There’s a lot to fix here. Running more frequent surveys isn’t going to help much.
If there’s a willingness to change, I would recommend simplifying the approach to listening. In other words, removing anything that gets in the way of hearing direct feedback and acting on it. Useful tools are things like check-ins, skip-level meetings, and “walking around” (virtually and in person). You need to share success stories and make sure you always close the feedback loop. Over time you can start to build trust.
When involvement is relatively low but trust is relatively high, you get a different challenge. People effectively have permission to complain. Whatever listening programme you set up, you’re going to struggle to get insights in this case. You are going to read a lot of negative comments though.
I’ve seen approaches like GE’s “Work Out” be effective in this situation. At heart Work Out is about involving people and driving accountability with speed and agility. I had a client that successfully transformed how people took ownership of feedback and business issues this way.
Other options include crowdsourcing and ideation tools and hackathons. I’m a proponent of embedding design-thinking into how you activate your EX strategy. I see design thinking as a way of involving people and co-creating solutions that you test, iterate, and improve incrementally. That’s important as it takes time to fix this type of employee voice challenge.
What’s it safe to say?
The next quadrant is an interesting one and it’s increasingly common. Some organisations have a focus on involving people and empowering managers with data, but at the same time employees are sceptical and distrusting of the way that’s done. This most often occurs when you’re over-reliant on technology for employee listening.
Put simply, many employees worry about surveillance and they don’t trust Big Tech at work. You can say what you want in the WhatsApp group with work mates, but you should only leave socially desirable messages in email, polls, surveys, and chat. Your calendar should reflect the day you would like to have, rather than how you actually spend time.
This is a problem. You don’t want employees talking about work on WhatsApp. And the data you can see in your platform is only a half-truth.
Here are some things you can do in this case:
- Use a diversity of data sources, including Glassdoor and feedback from recruiters and other external partners, as well as alumni
- Triangulate different research approaches and don’t get locked into one way of doing things — regularly shake things up
- Commission trusted independent parties, especially ones that have expertise in the topics you most want to understand.
I declare an interest here as Number 3 is what I do a lot of. I’m currently working with several leading technology companies who are very sensitive to the fact that they need to have an independent channel as part of their listening mix. My role is to translate feedback into insights for leaders. Apps and passive listening capture lots of noise. What’s the signal?
Like any good 2x2, you should aim for the top right quadrant. How can you construct an organisation that’s founded on conversation?
Here you have successfully established trust in your approach to employee listening, probably by building it up incrementally over time and by involving people at each stage.
In addition, employees know how feedback is used as they’ve been involved in making changes and they’ve felt the impact. As a result, they want more conversations. In fact, conversation has become part of the way you lead and engage people at all levels.
As well as involvement and trust, one other important aspect of conversational firms is transparency. This means sharing data and insights broadly, but that’s not all. It also means solving problems and even making decisions “out loud” rather than in private (as much as is possible).
How do you get here?
There are multiple steps to building conversation into the fabric of your organisation like this. I will highlight a few. These are based on the assumption that the starting point is a discussion about evolving your listening strategy, which is where this article began. What questions can you ask to reframe the discussion from listening to conversation?
The first step is to actually take one pace back and to focus on the Why. Why are we doing this? Where are we currently and what’s our ambition? How does this relate to our mission, vision and values? How does this connect to our business strategy and our people strategy? What’s the link to our employee value proposition? In a listening strategy workshop, these are the kind questions we begin with.
Once you’re clear on the Why, you can focus on the What. What problems are we trying to solve? What mechanisms do we need to have in place? What’s already working? What’s not? What are we currently spending on this? What’s the potential ROI? What’s the right mix of channels? What’s the best way to involve people in shaping our strategy? What are our golden rules and principles? To what extent should this be centralised or devolved? What’s the best way to put governance around this? These questions are normally discussed with a steering team. The answers are fed back to leaders.
Only then can you think about the When and the How. This involves building a multi-year roadmap that’s aligned to your EX strategy. As well as the mix of listening approaches and tools, you need to plan for leader role-modelling and for building manager capability broadly. In addition, you should ask how HR’s role will evolve. How will you implement and oversee new technology like AI? How will you communicate and engage stakeholders? And so on.
If you buy my argument that moving from listening to conversation is really about a change in leadership mindset regarding involvement, trust and EX, then you need to keep this at the heart of your thinking. It might require a deeper reflection by leaders on their role in shaping the change that’s required. A lot of work that we do on employee listening involves a discussion of this kind with the CEO and top team. We have an approach that we use to help leaders reflect on mindsets and what can propel the organisation forward or hold people back.
One phrase I really like in this regard, comes from John Kotter in his recent book Change. He talks about the importance of moving from “Survive Mode” to “Thrive Mode” and he says that leaders’ role is mainly to “create the space for new habits to form”. That’s a powerful perspective. Traditional listening approaches are designed top-down, but real EX conversation “bubbles up”. When you shift from listening to encouraging conversation, you might be surprised by what really works best in practice.
Let me know what you make of these ideas and if you would like more information on anything, drop me a note.
Bill Gorden’s framework can be found here: GORDEN, W.I. (1988) Range of employee voice. Employee Responsibilities and Rights Journal. Vol 1, No 4. pp283–99.
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