From Lip Service to Leadership


Transforming how organizations listen to their people

We believe that listening to employees is critical to improving performance, decision making and well-being. Most communicators would agree with this, but when it comes to looking at what organizations really value from their communication functions, listening appears far down the list.

The Listening Project

Over the last year and a half, we have been researching listening in organizations. During 2019 we surveyed and spoke to a number of communicators, and among other things found that:

  • Only 10% strongly agreed that senior leaders at their organization took what employees say seriously
  • The annual survey for many organizations has become a “tick-box” exercise which generates a lot of activity but seems to make little difference to performance and effectiveness
  • Social media is rarely used for employee voice and the analysis of employee opinions
  • Not only are employees often frightened to speak up, but managers and leaders find that it takes courage and that it is difficult to listen openly, especially during uncertain times
  • While organizations have well-developed processes for communicating from senior leaders to employees, multi-channel approaches to listening to employees are often very limited
  • Listening effectively can improve innovation, productivity, resilience and reputation, and it is associated with well-being

Listening is even more important when the nature of work, and the workforce, is changing faster than ever. Communication managers and leaders need to connect with employees to understand their needs for information, the pressures they face, and the relationships and the transactions that they value.

What we see instead is the growing use of video, internal social media and a rapid growth in the number of available channels that has simply led to broadcasting and messaging through a wider range of channels. In many cases, leaders and communicators have lost the balance between “receive” and “transmit.”

In our first report, “Who’s Listening,” published in December 2019, we detailed these findings and conclusions, and introduced the idea of developing a more systemic approach to listening. This means incorporating listening as a multi-channel ongoing process that is given as much time and attention as broadcasting.

What Is Good Listening in Practice?

In the first phase of our research, we received a great deal of input on what companies actually did to listen to their people. We read about CEO lunches, face-to-face and virtual focus groups, pulse surveys and many other approaches.

This begged the question of what makes good practice, and we opted to explore that by examining what serial Gold Quill winners did to listen to their people. We thought that people who had won more than one Gold Quill were a great proxy for companies or communicators who could be described as routinely excellent.

With the help of the IABC Foundation, we set up a series of in-depth interviews which identified some great stories of listening in practice, described in “Who’s Listening: Good Practice,” our second report published in June 2020. We also derived a series of good listening principles to help the communicators and leaders, which included the following.

Openness: Good listening requires an open mind.

Listening will only deliver insight and value if the leadership team is open to a challenge and new thinking. All leaders we spoke with emphasized the value they believed they received from listening to employees in different roles and levels in their organizations.

Planning: Good listening is the result of thorough planning across the organization.

Good listening is planned into the way in which the business operates. Our interviewees shared that input from their employees was the starting point in the communication or change planning process, and ongoing feedback was often identified as a routine part of the communication process.

Distributed leadership: Listening needs to be led at multiple levels.

Listening cannot be the responsibility of one function or individual, but is considered a shared responsibility between team leaders, senior leaders, communication heads and internal champions or influencers.

Empathetic and creative feedback: Good listening involves creating impactful and emotive feedback approaches.

Good listening involves hearing both rational arguments and being sensitive to people’s emotions. We came across examples of communicators paying attention to the best way to convey the emotional tone of what they had heard and to help develop better understanding and appreciation of the feedback.

Human: Good listening is rooted in a humanistic approach to communication and change.

Organizations involve complex relationships between individuals with different perspectives, emotions, biases and objectives. Listening is important because it helps explain how the people who make up an organization think and feel about how it is or is not working. Communicators and leaders in organizations that listen well are alive to the essentially human nature of the interactions that make up their business. They can be reflective and ask the questions that matter, and be sensitive to the needs of employees, managers and others.

Building the Capability to Listen
The communicators we spoke to emphasized the importance of developing everyday processes for listening. We have detailed 19 different tools that may be helpful in our June 2020 report. This includes the most often used tools such as surveys, focus groups, listening events, suggestion schemes and support services with guides on how they can be used. It also includes lesser known tools such as open space, world cafes, graffiti walls, solution groups/hot spots and engagement cafes.

The “Listening Spectrum” from the June 2020 report illustrates a range of distinct approaches from passive, through active and sensitive to deep listening.

The left-hand side of the spectrum focuses on approaches that are more reactive, rational and tied to the status quo. The right-hand side is more proactive, rational, emotional and helpful during change.

The listening spectrum indicates how organizations can develop their listening strategies and evolve from passive and reactive approaches to more proactive, change-oriented thinking that is associated with a range of benefits, such as competitive advantage, engagement, advocacy, trust, innovation, resilience, learning and well-being. The Good Listening Practice report provides more background on our thinking.

We believe that developing a more systemic listening capability requires:

  • Senior leaders who believe in and champion listening
  • Alignment of listening activities with strategic and operational goals
  • Harnessing internal social media for listening
  • Developing surveys and other listening tools with visible and transparent feedback and response mechanisms
  • Building listening skills

This does not only include the interpersonal listening capabilities of leaders, managers and communicators, but also the ability to analyze data, including:

  • Trends, ranking and comparative quantitative analyses from surveys
  • Sentiment analysis from open questions in surveys, focus groups and online discussions
  • Theme analysis from open questions in surveys, focus groups and online discussions
  • Stories, narratives, quotations, visuals and metaphors also from qualitative input

At a time when many continue to work and engage remotely, it is more important than ever for leaders to be aware of employees’ concerns. We invite all IABC members to continue to build the body of work on this topic via the global survey, which will be conducted with the IABC Foundation in the second half of 2020.

On 26 August at 9 a.m. PDT, attend “From Lip Service to Leadership – developing listening as a key communication capability,” an interactive webinar meeting with the authors. This webinar is free to IABC members. Register now

Howard Krais

Howard Krais was president of the UK and Ireland Chapter of IABC between 2018-20. He leads communications for the Clean Air sector of Johnson Matthey, a role he moved into in May 2018, having worked in senior communication roles at global giants GSK and EY previously.

Mike Pounsford

Mike Pounsford is past president of the UK and Ireland IABC Chapter. He is the founder of Couravel, a change and communication consultancy. He works with clients to develop engagement programs and change and communication skills of managers and leaders in the public, private and third sectors.

Kevin Ruck

Kevin Ruck is the co-founder of PR Academy, the UK’s largest provider of Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) qualifications. He is the course leader for PR Academy’s delivery of the CIPR Specialist Diploma: Internal Communication, and he is the editor and co-author of the respected text book “Exploring Internal Communication,” published by Routledge.

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