Tone deaf

There have never been more ways to listen to employees. Industrialising the practice of listening to employee voice and feedback is now easy, but it is another thing entirely to properly operationalise it and act on it.  Organisations can’t claim to be properly listening to employees until both of these things are in place. Until they are, internal communicators and the leadership teams we serve will remain tone deaf. 

How much time as an internal communicator do you spend listening to employees and what activity do you prioritise in your role – informing them or listening to them? For the majority of the respondents to this poll it was mostly all about informing.

There have never been more opportunities and ways to listen to employees, and the recent massive shift towards digital channels and tools during the pandemic has made this even easier. However, I doubt that meaningful employee listening regularly features on your average internal communicator’s weekly to-do list.

For the most part, internal communicators and the leadership teams we serve are tone deaf when it comes to really listening to employees properly.

Great communication is founded in great insight

I spent many years as a communicator in government and it was there that I learnt the power of audience insight. I still regularly recite the mantra that ‘great communication is founded in great insight’ if you want to create hard hitting campaigns with messages that really resound with your audiences. You just have to do your audience research up front to achieve that.

But, for organisations there is more to listening than just creating impactful communication that influences the right employee behaviours. There is potentially a massive commercial and operational advantage to be gained by properly listening to employees, and letting the insights gathered really shape the decision making in organisations.

I’m not talking here about consulting employees about what colour the walls should be in the canteen or what brand of teabags are stocked at the tea points. This is about regularly and actively listening to employees’ views and sentiments about a broad range of topics and issues and using this to drive how the organisation works, makes decisions and does business.

It’s only ethical that we listen

Most organisations worth their salt regularly listen to their external stakeholders. Investing huge amounts of time, money and effort listening to the likes of shareholders, suppliers, investors, commercial partners and most importantly customers. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be in business and there are countless examples of organisations that have folded because they didn’t have their finger on the pulse of what their customers wanted and needed from them.

It’s a shame that organisations don’t also invest the same amounts of time, money and effort listening to their most important stakeholder group – employees. Isn’t it only right and ethical that they should do that and invest in what is perhaps the most enduring relationship they have? The one they have with their employees.

Many employees dedicate big parts of their careers and lives to the organisations they work for, but for some organisations that loyalty and commitment is worth less than the money that defines their relationships with other stakeholder groups. Those organisations need to wake up and realise that their employees have largely untapped reservoirs of experience, insights and knowledge to share – if only they were asked!

The research is there but ‘who’s listening’ in internal communication?

I’ve been intrigued by the research being done by Dr Kevin Ruck, Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais into employee listening. If you haven’t seen this, do take a look because it is an outstanding piece of work.

For me their ‘Who’s listening’ report published back in 2019, and the recent 2020 update to this, exposed a massive deficiency in internal communication practice. Most of us don’t listen to employees regularly, know how to do this properly, or have the sponsorship and interest of leadership teams to spur us on to prioritise it in our day to day work.

As a practitioner, the ‘Who’s listening’ research and report has often caused me to reflect on what is stopping me and other internal communicators really listening to employees and I think there are a few big things that need to be addressed if we are to ever make the grade.

Most of these are bound up with how we currently practice internal communication. In the context of properly listening to employees much of this is ‘bad practice’.

Measurement isn’t listening

One thing that is getting in the way of listening to employees is measurement.

Internal communicators have been badgered and cajoled for years to try and measure everything they do, but I think that this has created a blind spot because measurement isn’t necessarily the same as listening.

When we evaluate our communication activities, we usually rely on gathering data focused on one or more of the five Os – Objectives, Outputs, Outtakes, Outcomes and Organisational Impact related to the communications activity we just undertook.

We fool ourselves into believing that we’ve listened to employees when in fact all we have done is evaluated.

Measurement is a distraction to listening to employees properly and we need to learn the difference between the two things and do both.   

Our listening methods are stuck in the 20th century

For many internal communicators, and the organisations they work for, the main way of listening to employees is still the annual employee engagement survey. Possibly supplemented by some topic specific pulse surveys, as indicated by this poll.

Another way that I, and I suspect many other internal communicators, have often been involved in employee listening from a change communication point of view, has been via focus groups, employee consultations and co-creation events for the various strands of change programmes or activities.

How quaint and very 20th century!

Are these methods really the best ways to actively and continuously listen to employees in the 21st century when we now have more digital means and channels to listen to them, virtually in real time?

If not, then why on earth are we still using them and relying on them to inform decision making about the actions our organisations need to take to address the feedback gathered. Most of this data is out of date and irrelevant by the time it has been analysed, debated and procrastinated over.

Would your finance director make critical financial decisions based on similar staccato sources of data? I very much doubt it.

We gather unactionable feedback

Since the pandemic started many of us have been involved in setting up and managing virtual ‘Ask Me Anything’ and other similar events on digital platforms, so that employees ‘en masse’ have been able to interact with leaders.

In some ways this has been the silver lining of the pandemic for internal communicators. It has democratised this kind of interaction for employees which previously would have been via highly stage-managed events for a select few. However, they are also probably the worst example of how to listen to employees to gather feedback that is actionable.

There is no point in listening to employees if you are then unable to do anything with the feedback gathered because it is just too messy, wide ranging, copious and unstructured.

I’ve always thought of the feedback I’ve gathered from employees as being either ‘actionable’ or ‘unactionable’. The latter often occurs because of the design of the method by which it was collected. It’s the difference between asking a closed or open question. An open question gives you a continuum of responses that are more difficult to analyse and act on.

Before you embark on any listening activity with employees, including large scale virtual ‘Ask Me Anything’ encounters with the CEO, it would be advantageous to think about how you can design into the activity some structure in how you will gather and brigade employee feedback so that it is more actionable. For that you might need a bit of help.  

Internal communicators don’t have the listening, research or analysis skills

Most of us didn’t become internal communicators because we wanted to endlessly gather employee feedback, analyse it and decide what to do with it. We are therefore not usually ‘naturals’ when it comes to data analysis, market research or statistical mathematics, but if we are to strike a better balance between distributing information and listening to employees, we are going to have to learn some of these skills or source them from somewhere else. 

Unfortunately, employee listening and the skills that support it are barely on the professional development radar for many of us, although some professional frameworks such as the IOIC Profession Map allude that it probably should be.

I don’t agree that we need to become complete experts in these areas. Like so many other things in internal communication, I think it is more about a collaboration with other people in our organisations who are good at these things, instead.

Most organisations have customer insight teams, market researchers and data analysts. In some of my internal communication roles I have collaborated with them very successfully to design listening interventions and activities to research and gather employee voice, get it properly analysed and packaged up so that decisions can be made and responsive action taken.

If research and data crunching makes your head hurt, then maybe try this approach instead.    

We’re always being left ‘holding the baby’

Have you ever accompanied the CEO or a senior leader to an informal employee discussion and been asked to be the scribe and jot down any issues or things that need to be followed up on? At the end you are then inevitably asked to make sure that the list is actioned ‘by the appropriate people’ and that you get back to the group to explain what has happened with their feedback.

Surprise… just got left ‘holding the baby’! Now it’s your job not only to communicate what has happened but to make it happen as well. Sound familiar?

It’s often the same situation with the results of the annual employee engagement survey. There’s a big presentation of the results, usually in the company of HR colleagues. At the end you ask ‘so what’s going to happen with the results and any follow up action that needs to be taken then?’ The usual answer is that the results will be chopped up and given to the appropriate departmental head to cascade to their managers to develop an ‘action plan’.

Everyone’s responsibility to act on the results suddenly became no-one’s responsibility, apart from yours, because you are on the hook to communicate what decisions and actions have been taken using them before the survey comes around again next year. This means progress chasing multiple stakeholders to find out what they have done to act on the results. Again, you have been left holding the baby, but this time it’s twins!

Most organisations don’t have the robust processes and governance in place to properly deal with the feedback from employee listening activities, whether these are based on 20th or 21st century methodologies. Employee feedback needs to be dealt with seriously in the the same way that customer feedback is continually gathered, analysed, interpreted, packaged and presented for a decision in the boardroom, and then agreed actions project managed through implementation to make sure they happen.

Industrialise and operationalise

None of that is the sole responsibility of the internal communicator. We should be involved in it, and particularly in the closing of the ‘you said, we did’ communication loop. But, we should not be solely accountable for ‘making it happen’ and involved in the progress chasing to make sure it has.  

With new digital tools at our disposal, it is easy to industrialise employee listening in organisations and to say that we are doing it. However, it is another thing entirely to properly operationalise it and act on it.

Organisations can’t claim to be properly listening to employees until both of these things are in place.

Until they are, internal communicators, leaders and the organisations we serve will remain tone deaf.  

Image by Szilárd Szabó from Pixabay 

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