You know the importance of listening to customers. It’s a no-brainer. How else do you ensure good retention and satisfaction levels? But what about your employees? Are you good at listening to them? Do they feel heard?
In our experience, CEOs can be great at broadcasting messages and communicating initiatives. But if they’re not actively listening, how do they know if those messages are getting through? Or how their staff feel when they receive that information? Top-down communication is essential – no doubt about that. But bottom-up feedback should be a bigger priority.
Listening makes life complicated. Maybe that’s why leaders find it hard. If you have certainty over something and you value that sense of assurance, listening is not high on your list. That’s because you know it’s going to mess with your certainty. When you seek feedback on a new vision or idea, you have to be prepared for difficult questions. Your confidence is likely to be challenged and, if you’re insecure, it’s tempting not to open up the dialogue in the first place.
However, it’s a fact that staff who feel heard are happier, more productive and engaged. And you need happy, engaged employees if you’re going to have any hope of growing your business. So, make it deliberate. Focus on becoming a listening organization.
The toxic consequences of not listening
Take yourself back to a time when you felt you weren’t being listened to. How did you feel? Pretty pissed off, I can imagine. It’s corrosive, and it doesn’t matter what level you’re working at. It happened to me when the company I’d helped to scale from zero to $20 million, ILM, was acquired. I couldn’t believe what I was watching. I’d given my heart and soul to this business for fifteen years and could see what was going to happen. When I told the acquirers, they wouldn’t listen. And when, as predicted, everything fell apart, they still ignored the brutal facts. That’s because they wouldn’t acknowledge they’d got it wrong.
If you’re not careful, this deafness becomes part of saving face. You see it in the actions of our illustrious government. They speak with complete certainty on something that turns out to be a blatant lie. But they’d never admit this. Or listen to any criticism. Organizations get themselves into a real mess because they’ve lost any form of psychological safety. They go deaf.
Start as you mean to go on
Instead of allowing rot to set in, make a deliberate decision to become a listening business. Start at the very beginning with new hires. Embed listening into your onboarding process. Striking research by Wipro in India showed how even the first hour of onboarding could impact retention for the first 12 months. It’s essential to make this time count.
Wipro sits teams of new hires together and asks them to share when they’ve been at their best. This act of listening, sharing and setting high expectations in front of others motivates people to deliver. In all the businesses I’ve managed, I give new hires special treatment. I tell them they have a superpower. Their eyes. I want their fresh perspective. They’re given a black book, and I ask them to note down anything they think is odd or annoying about the way we work. Then I listen to their observations over regular lunches in the first six months.
There’s no better way to show people they’ve joined a meritocracy. Somewhere that wants to hear their views. Many good things have come out of these conversations. I always make a point of giving ownership to their resolution. One guy said all the bananas were gone by Wednesday. So, he became the fruit monitor. And we never ran out again. This may be a silly example, but it shows that things that annoy team members can be easily fixed by the team, without your intervention, if you set up the proper framework.
Embed listening into your Executive Team
Open up channels for your Executive Team to receive bottom-up feedback. If you’re doing a series of daily huddles across the business, schedule them in reverse order so that feedback rolls up to the top. Get each member of your senior team to talk to a customer and someone not in their team every week. These opportunities for careful listening are invaluable. If you have any ‘speak truth to power’ issues, consider using skip meetings. Rather than just getting feedback directly from managers, skip a level and book a 1:1 with their reports. An excellent way for your Exec team to cut through any b*llocks to the real issues. These nuances are helpful.
Even if you haven’t got time to do individual 1:1s, take teams out. When Gary Sherlock, CEO at Peer 1, visited the UK every quarter, he would do this without fail. Dinners were arranged where he’d chat to teams about their experiences and issues. There’s no doubt that the staff at Peer 1 felt heard. Any niggles were aired before they snowballed. And these outlets for conversation prevented triangulation and a sense of ‘them and us’. I’ve worked at companies in the past where there are ‘terrorist employees’, plotting the company’s downfall from within. The best way to stop this is to listen and act.
Introduce regular opportunities for feedback
A while back, I listened to Horst Shulze, founder of the world-leading Ritz Carlton hotel group. A memorable comment that he made had a significant impact on me. I was struck by how he could talk in detail about what went on in daily huddles. ‘He’s the COO of a multi-million-pound company,’ I thought. ‘How can he know this stuff?’ But it was his job to open hotels, and he would personally hire the 350 or so staff.
Ritz Carlton had a series of service mantras that underpinned their motto of ‘Ladies and Gentlemen serving Ladies and Gentlemen.’ In their daily huddles, they would repeat one of these. Someone would read it out with intention, and someone else would listen and call out a team member who embodied this mantra. They’d then open up the discussion to where they’d struggled to deliver against the service goal.
This is an excellent example of communicating a vision but also listening to employees. If you don’t open up a discussion, you don’t know if your message is getting through.
Act on feedback
So you’ve opened up channels and sought feedback. Now you need to act on it. If you’re creating a culture of psychological safety where people genuinely feel heard, you need to do something with what they’ve told you.
You know how stressful it can be to speak up and then feel unacknowledged. After all, you’re trying to build a business where people put their hearts and souls into their jobs. Some of their self-worth is tied up with their work. Be careful not to destroy this by ignoring their comments or concerns.
At ILM, we empowered staff to sort problems out. Our stupidrules@ email address invited everyone to list their top annoyances. And if it cost less than $100 to fix, they were pre-approved to make it happen. Soon we’d built a culture of personal responsibility and pride. We trusted our staff to speak up and resolve any issues before they blew up any further.
Use metrics to measure productivity and staff happiness
Want an easy way to keep tabs on the culture you’re building? Use metrics. There are many resources for measuring staff engagement. It gives your people a weekly opportunity to feedback on how they’re feeling, any new ideas they’ve had or suggestions for changes. Just by introducing this, you’ll demonstrate that you’re a listening culture.
One of the significant challenges companies are currently facing is getting staff back to the office. You want to show you’re listening but asking people how they feel about coming back before they do, is counter-productive. It’s an example of where listening could hold you back. Nic Marks, the founder of Friday Pulse, talks about this in a recent article. Instead of polling staff about returning, he suggests organizing days to bring them together informally to meet each other again. Perhaps arrange some communal activities – something physical would work well. You want people to be reminded of what they’ve missed about face-to-face interaction. Then seek feedback on how they feel about returning.
Say thank you (often)
There’s solid research to support the impact on mood and well being of gratitude. So, it’s essential to be deliberate about saying thank you. Nothing shows you’re listening and noticing more than calling out good behaviour and a job well done. Friday Pulse can help again. It opens a channel for regular praise and celebration. As you go through the previous week’s feedback on a Monday, you can look at why people felt happy or otherwise and encourage people to open up about any challenges.