Listening to employees: from measurement to meaning

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and editor/co-author of Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge. Kevin leads the CIPR Internal Communication Diploma course. PhD, MBA, BA Hons, PGCE, FCIPR, CMgr, MCMI.

How good are organisations at listening to employees and why should they bother?

These are two questions that Mike Pounsford, Howard Krais and myself have been researching for the past two years. We have conducted interviews, run workshops and examined case studies. And in our latest report we delve deep into both points through a survey with more than 500 communication managers.

The results are both surprising and illuminating.

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Firstly, we found a number of notable and statistically significant associations between listening and a wide range of beneficial outcomes such as:

  • Effective change management
  • Generation of good ideas on how to work effectively
  • Responding well to changing situations
  • Adapting quickly to unexpected new demands
  • Creating new products and services

As organisations re-emerge from the pandemic, it is clear that listening to employees provides a route to successful adoption of changes and working effectively in a new world of work. If there are communication managers and/or senior managers who have doubted the rationale for listening to employees, then the hard data in the report puts that scepticism to rest. Listening is definitely good for business.

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Listening is also good if you believe that it is important that your organisation treats people fairly. It was one of the strongest associations found in the survey analysis. But it does rely on having an open mindset when listening to employee feedback.

Perhaps the most illuminating finding in the report is the way that respondents reported relatively high levels of listening in their organisation that were not then backed up by reports of what was done in practice. For example, 73 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their organisation ‘takes what employees say seriously’ compared with 46 percent for ‘plans carefully to ensure listening happens throughout the organisation’ and 42 percent for ‘responds promptly’. This suggests that many organisations may think they listen but they are possibly only paying lip-service to it.

We have known for some time that surveys dominate listening. But the report reveals just how dominant they are. The ‘large-scale engagement survey’ is used by 59 percent of respondents at least annually and is mentioned most often as the approach delivering insights. Surveys can help measure the effectiveness of communication and highlight concerns and issues. But for many, they feel like a management tool rather than a platform for meaningful conversations.

Surprisingly, 77 percent of respondents said they rarely or never used focus groups – a listening method where deep insights were often cited as benefits in open comments in the survey.

When it comes to digital listening, another useful finding is that 53 percent of respondents said that employees are more comfortable speaking up on digital platforms than in other settings. The associations with beneficial outcomes are also stronger for digital listening than for line manager/supervisor listening and staff suggestion schemes. And yet 58 percent of respondents said that digital listening is rarely or never used.

This is a great opportunity for anyone interested in developing listening capabilities that help to create new products and services or result in organisations that care about diversity – two outcomes that were most positively associated with digital listening.

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Finally, there is strong evidence in the report that organisations who invest time in using data from listening to employees to drive operational performance reap the most benefits. There is a 38-point difference between organisations generating good ideas on how to work effectively – dependent on whether or not they use listening data to drive performance.

So, in answer to the first question posed at the start of this piece, organisations are not quite as good at listening to employees as they perhaps think they are. And in answer to the second question, there are multi-faceted, robust, benefits to listening, including effective change management, adaptability, working effectively, caring about diversity and treating people fairly.

Previous ‘Who’s Listening?’ Reports: Who’s Listening? Parts 1 and 2


Download the full ‘Who’s Listening?’ Part 3 2021 report using the form below


Watch the webinar: Dr Kevin Ruck, Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais launch the research.

Who's Listening? Report 2021 Update

Report key findings:

  • Listening is key to developing new working practices
  • There is an over-reliance on surveys and minimal use of focus groups that provide deep insights
  • The potential for digital listening is significant
  • Leadership listening is more strongly associated with positive outcomes than line manager/supervisor listening
Who's Listening? 2021 Report Part 3.

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