Hearing More of What Matters

January 13, 2023   ·  

It’s fair to say that there are some big problems when it comes to people in the workplace. While the working world has been pursuing the holy grail of an engaged workforce, a bigger problem has sprung up, with hardly anyone noticing.

Year after year, Gallup–the people who virtually invented the Engagement Survey–tell us that people are still not engaged at work (and possibly even less so than ever), despite the decades of effort and investment made by companies trying to improve it.

While the working world has been pursuing the holy grail of an engaged workforce, a bigger problem has sprung up, with hardly anyone noticing: burnout. More and more people are succumbing to the endless pressures of modern work, which in turn fuels the rapidly growing industry of self-help-style wellness apps and resilience courses. Unfortunately, these do more to reinforce the belief that burnout is a personal weakness than they do to prevent people from burning out in the first place.

And then we get to the whole COVID thing. There is hardly an organisation in the world that didn’t have to reinvent the way it worked at some point over the past two years. Nearly everyone got used to life without the drudgery of a daily commute, but the cost of that seemingly universal benefit appears to be connection, comradery, innovation, and (dare I say) engagement.

How you tackle these issues is already the subject of countless articles and scholarly papers. I’m sure it will be the topic of many more, but I’m going to attempt to do it in one. In fact, I might go so far as to say that I believe we could solve all of these issues and many more by doing one thing really, really well.


At the root of these problems and countless other cultural issues in the modern workplace is a problem with listening.

If you stick with me, I’ll explain not only why we’re missing so many valuable clues about what’s going on inside our organisations, but I’ll also share with you some of the most important lessons we’ve learned over the past five years in building a platform that helps organisations make listening to their employees a core capability.

We’re willing to bet that a company that listens to and works well with its employees is likely to have a winning hand


How Do You Listen?

Few people—particularly those in leadership roles—need to be told that listening is a vital skill. I’m always interested in how people respond to questions about how good they are at listening and, of course, how they listen.

You won’t be surprised to hear that most people believe they’re pretty good at listening.

When I ask how they currently listen to their people, they reply with a host of different mechanisms—some formal, most informal.

They’ll talk about things like Management By Walking Around (MBWA) or slightly more formal versions like “Breakfast with the Board”, “Ask Me Anything”, or, “Beers with the CEO”— my personal favourite and shared with me by a former CEO of a well-known beer company.

There are countless examples, and they’re all great! Keep doing them, do more of them, please. They all help.

The conversation inevitably moves to the employee engagement survey, which is used in a staggering proportion of firms. Again, they’re an important tool in your listening arsenal, but they miss so many important things about life inside your firm that we really should be questioning the reliance that many companies place on them.

The point of these tools and methods—and the countless others I might’ve mentioned—is that they’re about listening to your people. They all contribute to a greater—or lesser—extent to your understanding of what’s going on in the front line of your business and in the lives of the people that work for you. Not only that, they’re about understanding whether the way things happen around your company is consistent with all of those things that you say happen i.e., your culture statements and values.

Periodic surveys attached to an award about how great a company yours is can be seductive. Just as it can be tempting to believe that when you walk around the office as a senior leader, you experience your workplace in exactly the same way everyone else does.

But we need to get beyond vanity here and accept a few hard truths:

Building a great company will require you to build a healthy culture, and for that to happen, you need to pay attention to what’s really going on in your business. Paying attention means listening better, and if you’re still not sure whether you’re listening well enough as an individual and as a company, think about what you hear.


Listening is about making sense of an ever-changing context

As I’ve said already, the point of effective listening is to ensure we hear the things we need to. Let’s put that to the test with a brief thought experiment with your listening channels in mind:

There’s a great deal that we really need to hear at work, and most of it can only come from the “horse’s mouth”— direct from the employee—yet nearly all of our traditional channels either miss these things altogether or result in us not getting the information early enough to do anything beyond managing the fallout. Speed is essential!

In today’s increasingly uncertain and unpredictable world, organisations are realising that there simply isn’t time to indulge in leisurely sense-making, followed by slow strategic planning, and drawn-out decision-making before finally getting around to taking action.

By the time decisions emerge from such a lengthy process, the world has moved on, rendering the decisions obsolete.

And yet, that’s exactly how most firms operate when it comes to listening to their people. Periodic data collection, central collation and analysis, and top-down decision-making–“you said, we did”. This is precisely why people are so fed up with sharing their experiences with their leaders–most of what we share is ignored, what is acted upon wasn’t what I wanted to change, and by the time anyone gets around to doing anything about the issues, they’re no longer the issues.

So, let’s do it differently.


How to listen - the future-fit version

At Harkn, we describe ourselves as a company that helps other businesses “to hear more of what matters by giving their people a voice and a safe space to use it.” It’s taken us a long time and lots of learning to get to where we are, and here’s where I’m going to share four of those key lessons so that you can bake them into the listening programme in your workplace.


Capture stuff as it happens

If you want to get an understanding of what life is like on a day-to-day basis, you need to operate in the real world on a day-to-day basis. That means capturing experiences as they happen, not asking people about them days or weeks later.

Our memories are desperately unreliable (despite what we like to think) and so anything that we collect retrospectively is likely to be subject to all kinds of skewing factors, from Peak End Theory to inherited memories from my colleagues.

Developing the capability to grab and use insights in the workplace as it happens is not only going to be more reflective of real-life in your firm, but also opens up critical opportunities to take action where only live, real-time, in-the-moment insights can help.

Things like wellbeing, stress, and mental health can be understood in periodic evaluations, but they can’t be influenced. If you want to move your wellbeing agenda beyond systemic views, then you need in-the-moment data.


Focus on psychological safety

To get to hear the truth in the workplace, people need a serious level of psychological safety. I happen to believe that the only way for organisations to truly operate with psychological safety—in contexts like sharing experiences and feelings at work—is total anonymity. You need to ensure you have listening mechanisms that allow for this.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that people should be able to stand behind their comments, feedback, and opinions–that’s how they’d want it to be in their company.

Bravo. It just won’t work, at least not for long.

Employees at all levels of the organisations we work with obsess about anonymity. That tells us everything we need to know about current levels of safety—and let’s be clear, crappy companies don’t hire Harkn, so we’re talking about the better ones.

Anonymity is to be celebrated, not considered a weakness in your culture or reflective of lower levels of maturity.

Here’s another way to think about it. When you strip away all identifiers from a person when soliciting feedback from them, you’re creating the conditions for equal voice, and that is a major milestone for everyone pursuing inclusion.


Decentralise control with transparency

You need to let people see what everyone is saying. We’re all so used to being asked questions and never seeing the results until they’ve been analysed and scrutinised by management, but it’s time to do this differently.

Firstly, there is no trust or growth to be had by keeping things secret until they’ve been vetted by leadership. And secondly, we all know that sustainable change is done by those it affects, not done to them by their bosses.

Put the information in the hands of those who can use it (and that’s likely to be everyone), get rid of the lag by making the information available immediately, and create the time, space, and opportunity—i.e., the right conditions— for your people to set about putting right the things that make their work more difficult.


Effective listening really isn’t that hard. You’ve just got to mean it and make it matter.

The biggest challenge for any organisation seeking to beef up its listen- ing culture is likely to be the fact that no one is going to believe that anything will be different as a result. You need to start by ensuring everyone knows it’ll matter.

Listening is a two-part process–it’s about 1) getting your employees to use their voices and 2) ensuring they are listened to and feel heard.

We encounter challenges on both of these things with regularity, but it’s often not as complicated as people imagine.

Take “ensuring that you’re listening and that people feel heard” - this can be as simple as acknowledging what’s being shared and thanking people for it.

Decentralising might begin with an employee listening group whose job it is to ensure that everyone gets heard and then sharing those views with leadership regularly.

Most important is seeking opportunities for people to shape their own future, listen carefully, and adjust the conditions accordingly. Give people the time, space, and resources to make the changes they need to and move the things that they can’t move on their own.

We all want to be heard. If people didn’t want to voice their opinions, then Twitter wouldn’t exist, and I don’t know about you, but when it comes to issues in the workplace, I’d rather not read about them on that platform.


The takeaway?

The world has changed. The way we work, where we work, and how we manage people have all changed dramatically. This means that what it takes to be a great employer or manager has also changed. You need to be able to under- stand and respond to your employees' needs and feedback in much more natural, collaborative, and iterative ways.

At the heart of this is the need to make listening to employees a cultural value in your workplace.


David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn

Employee engagementLeadershipConnectionInnovationWellbeing

Further reading