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Hear More of What Matters: Rethinking Employee Listening

January 13, 2023   ·  

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

Stick with me, and we’ll explain why you’re missing out on so much valuable information about what’s going on inside your organisation.

We’re also going to share some of the most important lessons we’ve learned in five years spent building a platform that makes employee listening a core organisational capability.

Buckle up…


The state of employee engagement 

Spoiler alert: it's not good. 

Year after year, Gallup – the people who basically invented the Employee Engagement Survey – tell us that people are still not engaged at work. In fact, the picture is looking worse than ever, despite decades of effort and investment from companies.

While the working world has been busy pursuing the holy grail of an engaged workforce, a bigger problem has reared its head: burnout.

More and more people are succumbing to the endless pressures of modern work. This is fuelling the rapid growth of self-help style wellness apps and resilience courses. While these resources address wellbeing issues on a personal level, they do not address the root cause of burnout.

Then there was the whole Covid thing. Hardly an organisation in the world didn’t have to reinvent the way it worked at some point in the last two years. Everyone adjusted to life without the drudgery of a daily commute, but the cost of that benefit appears to be connection, comradery, innovation, and – yep – engagement.

So, how can you tackle the mammoth issue of engagement? This question is already the topic of countless articles and scholarly papers, but we’re going to try and answer it in one article.

In fact, we’re going to go as far as to say you can solve all the above issues and many more by doing one thing really, really well.



How do you listen? 

Few people need to be told that listening is a vital skill, and most people believe they’re pretty good at it.

But, here at Harkn, we’re interested in how you listen.

When we pose this question to leaders, they mention a host of different mechanisms – some formal, most informal.

They’ll talk about things like MBWA (Management By Walking Around), ‘Breakfast with the Board’, ‘Ask Me Anything’ or – our personal favourite shared by the CEO of a well-known beer company – ‘Beers with the CEO.’

There’s nothing wrong with any of these, and all form a valuable part of your employee listening strategy.

The conversation then inevitably moves on to the employee engagement survey, which is used in a staggering proportion of firms.

Again, surveys have their role to play in employee listening.

All the tools and methods mentioned above contribute in some way to understanding your employees, and what’s going on on the frontline of your business.

They’re also about understanding whether life inside your company aligns with things like culture statements and values.

Periodic surveys attached to an award saying how great your company 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 the workplace in the same way everyone else does.

But we need to move beyond vanity, and accept a few hard truths:


Put your employee listening strategy to the test:

The purpose of effective listening is to ensure we hear the things we need to. 

Follow this brief thought experiment with your own listening channels in mind: 


Better listening = better decisions

There’s a lot we want to know about at work, especially as leaders, and most of it can only come ‘from the horse’s mouth’ – i.e., directly from our employees.

Yet nearly all of our traditional channels either miss these insights completely, or give us the information far too late for us to be able to act effectively.

Speed of insight is essential!

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

By the time we actually reach decisions, the world has moved on and rendered those decisions obsolete.

It’s surprising, then, that this is exactly how the majority of firms operate. Periodic data collection, central collation and analysis, and top-down decision-making – “you said, we did.”

People are reluctant to share their feedback and experiences with their leaders, because most of what we share is ignored or the response is so delayed that the issue at hand has changed.

Let’s do things differently.


Future-fit employee listening 

Harkn helps 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 to get to this point, so here are four key things we’ve learned along the way:

1. Capture things as they happen 

If you want to get an understanding of day-to-day life in your organisation, 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, so collecting feedback retrospectively is going to be subject to all sorts of skewing factors like Peak End Theory and inherited memories from colleagues.

Developing the capability to capture real-time insights gives a more accurate picture of life in your organisation and opens up critical opportunities to take action.

You can understand subjects like wellbeing, stress, and mental health through periodic evaluations, but you can’t influence their trajectory. You need live data to move your wellbeing agenda forwards.

2. Establish psychological safety 

Without psychological safety in place, you can’t hear the truth from people in the workplace.

At Harkn, we believe the only way organisations can truly operate with psychological safety is through total anonymity. Your listening mechanisms must reflect this to be effective.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been told that people should be able to stand by their comments in a compassionate company.

The intention is kind here, but it’s misguided. In our experience, forcing employees to identify themselves when they give feedback simply doesn’t work – at least not for long.

At all levels of the organisations we work with, employees are obsessed with anonymity. That tells us everything we need to know about current levels of psychological safety in the workplace.

Anonymity should be celebrated as a strength, not a weakness, in your culture. When you strip away all identifiers from a person when soliciting their feedback, you create the conditions for equal voice. That’s a major milestone for everyone pursuing inclusion.

3. Decentralise control with transparency 

We believe that employee voice should be anonymous, but we also believe it should be completely transparent. Let people see what everyone else is saying.

We’re all used to being asked questions and never seeing the results until they’ve been analysed by management, but it’s time to approach this differently.

Firstly, no trust or growth comes from keeping things a secret from your employees until they’ve been vetted by leadership.

Secondly, we all know that sustainable change comes from those it affects, not their bosses.

Put information in the hands of those who can use it, which – in most cases – is everyone. Close the feedback loop making information available immediately, creating the conditions for faster sensemaking, decision-making, and action-taking.

4. Make a loud and clear commitment 

For any organisation looking to strengthen it’s listening strategy, the biggest obstacle is likely to be getting your people to believe you.

You need to start by making people believe you are listening to them and speaking up can actually make a difference to their lives at work.  

Listening is a two-part process:

  1. Getting your employees to use their voices
  2. Ensuring those voices are listened to and feel listened to

Both parts present their own challenges, but it’s not as complicated as you might imagine.

Take the second part of that process. Ensuring an employee feels heard can be as simple as acknowledging what they’ve shared and thanking them for it.

Ensuring democratic listening might begin with setting up an employee listening group who are responsible for making sure everyone is heard and sharing their views with leadership regularly.


The takeaway? 

The world has changed. Where and how we work has changed. What it takes to be a great employer or manager has changed. 

In this new landscape, you need to be able to understand and respond to your employees’ needs and feedback in more natural, collaborative, and iterative ways.

Seek opportunities for people to shape their own future, listen carefully, and adjust the conditions accordingly.

It’s time to make employee listening a core cultural value in your workplace.

Find out how Harkn can help here, or over a virtual coffee


David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn

Employee engagementLeadershipConnectionInnovationWellbeingEmployee voice

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