For too long, the annual employee survey has reigned as the listening modality of choice— often used in isolation with little post-survey action or communication. Pulse surveys fare no better. Leaders need to move away from merely gathering employee feedback and instead begin to authentically listen and act on what they learn. Each listening opportunity either increases or decreases the employee experience. Research shows it’s best to use a mix of at least five different modalities of listening continuously throughout the year. Then, by proactively communicating feedback, action, and results along the way, organizations can improve listening and the employee experience simultaneously.
The annual employee survey has lost much of its luster for employees. Used year after year without much thought, it’s become little more than a mechanism for rating and ranking, not listening. Organizations have tried to “modernize” the annual survey by changing up the questions or switching to pulse surveys, but they both do the same thing: rate and rank, but rarely listen. Getting feedback from employees has become a “check the box” exercise, rather than an intentional method to improve culture.
Soliciting employee feedback solely through the annual survey has led to greater dissatisfaction and damaged the employee experience. The results are abysmal when companies only use an annual survey to collect employee feedback:
51% of employees are satisfied with the process of collecting feedback
63% of employees are satisfied with the employee experience
66%of employees would leave for a similar job
A net promoter score of -30
More often than not, annual employee surveys alone are inaccurate, as employees won’t provide honest, informative feedback out of fear they will suffer negative consequences. Many don’t fill out the survey at all because they believe nothing will change. Fact is, 1 in 3 employees feel like the organization retaliates against those who provide feedback, and 1 in 4 employees feel ignored when they share their feedback. And 34% of employees think their company doesn’t listen to their ideas for improving the business.1 Companies are getting inaccurate feedback, making changes based on that incorrect feedback, and are left wondering why their numbers are so difficult to improve.
hear v. To be told or informed of.
listen v. To take notice of and act on what someone says; respond to advice or a request.
Listening is more than just asking for feedback. It includes acting on what you are hearing. There are multiple elements to listening: receiving the feedback through multiple modalities, communicating the results, taking visible action, and broadcasting the changes widely.
Active listening should happen far more than once a year. Forwardlooking organizations regularly use multi-method listening strategies to hear, respond to, and act on feedback from employees. It’s a practice that is embedded within the culture of an organization through multiple avenues, and done by multiple people within the organization, not just HR.
Frequent active listening is a critical ingredient in daily employee experiences. You need to listen to employees through pulse surveys, one-to-ones, focus groups, town halls, team meetings, skip-level meetings, dedicated suggestion boxes, a dedicated employee for listening, social media platforms, exit interviews, internal communication, and collaboration tools—every day and in every interaction. It’s a daily practice. Deloitte found the biggest challenge in employee engagement initiatives is, “shifting from a transactional, once-a-year mind-set, to an ‘always on,’ continuous listening approach to monitoring engagement.”2
As you might expect, leaders play a crucial role in active listening. Only 51% of employees think their organization is great at listening to them, and only 56% of employees feel their leaders stay in touch with what employees need. Leaders are the first people employees go to when they have ideas or need answers, resources, guidance, and support. They are the first line of defense when it comes to active listening.
Even the giants are listening—because they understand that some of the smallest voices might have the biggest ideas. Google, for example, holds weekly townhall meetings, which include a Q&A with the CEO. In fact, Lazlo Bock, the former Senior Vice President of People Operations said, “Everything is up for question and debate, from the trivial… to the ethical.” The CEO of Microsoft, doesn’t shy away from listening either. The company holds monthly Q&A sessions with employees and broadcasts the conversations. While employee listening might seem like a huge undertaking, especially at large organizations, these tech giants are proving that all voices matter.3
Organizations on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies To Work For list know the importance of listening. “Enhancing communication to promote transparency and idea-sharing via virtual and face-to-face methods” was the top cultural priority for these best places to work companies. This includes having leaders who are available for feedback and share important information with employees, as well as actively asking for ideas on how to improve. The increased transparency and inclusion leads to a fairer and better employee experience.4
What do senior leaders think about active listening?
“Listen more. For most of my twenties I assumed that the world was more interested in me than I was in it, so I spent most of my time talking, usually in a quite uninformed way, about whatever I thought, rushing to be clever, thinking about what I was going to say to someone rather than listening to what they were saying to me.” —Paul Bennett, Chief Creative Offi cer at IDEO
“To be able to motivate and inspire others, you need to learn how to listen in both individual meetings and at the group level.” —Christine Riordan, Leadership Coach and President of Adelphi University
“As a leader, you need to have a strong voice and you need to know when it’s time to listen,” —Amy Jen Su, Co-founder of Paravis Partners
A comprehensive listening program also impacts employee burnout. Simply having a multi-method listening strategy in place decreased burnout incidence by 28%. A strong listening strategy with multiple methods, communication, and action decreased the odds of employees experiencing moderate-to-severe burnout by 54%. On the flip side, when leaders dismiss employee opinions and ideas, 38% of employees become unmotivated.5
Listening goes hand in hand with psychological safety. Employees will not voice their opinions or suggest new ideas if they fear retaliation or ridicule from the company, leaders, or peers. In fact, 20% of ideas are never heard because employees are afraid to offer them up6, and one-half of employees don’t speak their minds at work.7 Giving feedback is a risk that employees decide to take—do they want to upset their leaders, who have established a specific structure, process, or culture? Empirical research found that employees want to speak up with ideas, opinions, and solutions that can improve their organizations, but usually are too afraid to do so. The evidence shows that speaking up impacts both organizational effectiveness and leads to high-quality decision making.8 In other words, companies can’t improve or succeed if employees don’t speak up, and employees won’t speak up unless it’s safe to do so.
Omni Hotels and Resorts has made employee listening and empowerment a priority by introducing a concept called “The Power of One.” Every new employee is taught that they are empowered to solve problems and ensure guests have a positive experience. If a guest has to wait for a room, an employee has the discretion to offer them a free drink in the lounge. “The person making that decision might be a waiter or a busboy or a bellman,” says Alex Pratt, director of human resources. “They don’t have to get permission; all they have to do is arrange for the delivery of whatever they want to deliver.” Every day starts with a stand-up meeting where employees are encouraged to talk, and managers are encouraged to listen. “It may be fun or it may be serious, but the idea is to stimulate interest among employees.” But the listening doesn’t stop there. Employees are also asked how they would solve specific problems or challenges—even if the situation is outside of their daily functional area— showing them that their input is valued.9
Use multiple modalities to get employee feedback—ideally five.
An IBM study found HR leaders who use multiple listening methods rated their organizational performance and reputation 24% higher than those who don’t.10
We examined the effect of the number of listening modalities on various outcomes and found a magic number: five. Utilizing five modalities has a significant impact on employee perception, but after five, the probability of favorable results flattens, and you get less bang for your buck.
Our research indicates some modalities are more effective than others. Dedicated ways to listen to employees (in focus groups or through a dedicated employee for listening) has a greater impact on satisfaction with the feedback process.
Communicate results publicly and through multiple modalities.
About 70% of organizations are communicating the results of employee feedback, but only 30% are using multiple modalities of communication. A diversity of vehicles here is also essential and can be very impactful.
Communication has a significant effect on people feeling heard. When results are communicated with employees, there is a:
148% increase in the probability of employees feeling like their organization is great at listening to employees
112%increase in the probability of employees feeling like leaders stay in touch with what employees need
189% increase in the probability an employee feels appreciated
Take action within three months of receiving feedback.
Actively taking steps to address employee feedback is critical. Why would employees bother giving feedback if nothing is done with it? Learning that one-half of organizations take longer than six months after communicating results to take action on feedback, and only 64% ever address it, isn’t comforting. But it does hint at the depth of the problem.
The good news is that when companies do make changes based on the feedback they receive, employees are 358% more likely to be more satisfied with the feedback process and 133% more likely to have a favorable perception of leadership.
Timing plays a role, as well. When organizations make visible changes within three months of communicating feedback results, they see drastic improvements in the employee experience, engagement, and company culture:
The faster change follows feedback, the larger its impact. Our research demonstrates that making changes within one month has an even more significant effect:
804% increase in the probability of feeling like the organization is great at listening to employees
306% increase in the probability that the employee will trust the organization to do what is right, even if it causes problems in the short term
203% increase in the probability that the employee will feel like their ideas are taken seriously by the organization
Communicating change is almost as important as the change itself. Taking steps to improve is only effective if employees are aware of what was done to address their feedback. Be specific about what actions you took and why you took them. Connect improvements made to the feedback received and how it impacts the employees who gave it.
Employee listening can’t be a “check the box” exercise. Nor can it be left up to an annual survey. Companies that want to help employees thrive must build workplace cultures than embed active listening throughout the employee experience. It’s not the job of pulse surveys or suggestion boxes, it’s the responsibility of all leaders at an organization. When leaders are open to feedback, listen and respond to it, and make changes quickly, employees feel a higher sense of opportunity, feel valued and heard, and experience less burnout. And companies see higher engagement, more innovation, and more passion from their people.
1-800-GOT-JUNK was a successful company. In 2006, under the leadership of then-COO Cameron Herold, the company had $60 million in revenue and 200 employees. It was growing fast, but senior leaders disagreed on how to grow. The VP of Finance warned them not to spend in specific ways. “He cautioned us about our growth, but we never really listened,” says Cameron. Because the VP had a more quiet, introverted personality, he didn’t combat Cameron and the CEO’s more dominant opinions. “Because he wasn’t right in our face about it, pushing us, we let his words go in one ear and out the other.”
Since they didn’t listen to their VP, the company expanded too fast and ran out of cash. When the economic downturn hit in 2009, the company faced deep financial difficulty. Fortunately, they survived, but Cameron has changed how he approaches listening to employees. “It’s important to look for it, to know if I’ve been truly listening to them or simply placating them. And as a leadership team, we learned that we had to listen and pay attention to everyone, regardless of their communication style.”11
1. “Most Employees Don’t Feel Their Ideas Are Being Heard”, Anna Jordan, smallbusiness.co.uk, July 6, 2018.
2. “Engagement”, David Brown, Josh Bersin, Will Gosling, Nathan Sloan, Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 Report.
3. “Why You Should Listen to Your Employees—Lessons from Virgin, Microsoft and Zendesk”, Martina Cicakova, Sli.do, May 25, 2018.
4. “Three Predictions for the Workplace Culture of the Future”, Great Place to Work, 2018 5. “
5 Reasons Why You Should Listen to Your Employees”, Ranjit Jose, SHRM, December 7, 2015.
6. “Most Employees Don’t Feel Their Ideas Are Being Heard”, Anna Jordan, smallbusiness.co.uk, July 6, 2018.
7. “The State of Miscommunication”, Quantum Workplace.
8. “Relationship between Psychological Safety and Employee Voice: The Mediation Role of Affective Commitment and Intrinsic Motivation”, Sibel Ayas and Ozlem Yasar Ugurlu, Journal of Business Research Turk, March 2016.
9. “Empowering Employees: The Power of One”, Patrick White, Turf Magazine, October 28, 2017.
10. “Amplifying Employee Voice”, IBM Institute for Business Value, IBM Smarter Workforce Institute, 2015.
11. “How to Really Listen to Your Employees”, Sara Stibitz, Harvard Business Review, January 30, 2015.
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