Who’s listening?

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.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash
Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

When we talk about internal communication practice, our minds usually turn straight to what is written or said and what channels work best.

But, as we all know, good communication involves listening as well as telling.

Listening to employees, or what’s sometimes known as employee voice, featured as one of MacLeod and Clarke’s four enablers of engagement in the ground breaking Engaging for Success report in 2009. However, in informal conversations with students in my Internal Communication Diploma course it became evident that listening to employees is still not fully understood in many organisations.

In 2019, working with Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais, I conducted research with communication managers to get a greater insight into current listening practice.

We found that some organisations have lost the balance between ‘receive’ and ‘transmit’.  With the growing use of video, social media and an explosion of channels the danger is that organisations forget that good communication starts with the ability to listen. Listening is now more important than ever.  Leaders will be judged by how they listen to and care for their people.

So, for 2020 we have taken a closer look at what good listening looks like, particularly in times of COVID-19 and the ‘new normal’ to follow.


We’ve found not surprisingly, that COVID-19 has sped up the rate at which organisations are adopting new, online ways of listening to employees and believe that listening will continue to grow in importance to connect people to organisations.

Through the research, we identified five principles for good listening:

  1. Openness: good listening requires an open mind
  2. Planning: thorough planning across the organisation
  3. Distributed leadership: listening needs to be led at multiple levels in the organisation
  4. Empathic and creative: creating impactful and emotive feedback approaches
  5. Human: understanding how people think and feel

Although we gathered the case study examples pre-COVID, many can be adapted for an online environment and the principles we identified apply whatever the method being used.

We have also set out how organisations can assess their maturity against a spectrum of approaches.

  • Passive: more opportunities for passive listening to check what people are thinking and feeling
  • Active: leaders showing that they are aware and responsive to needs of employees
  • Sensitive: opportunities for people to talk about how they are feeling
  • Deep: listening exercises that can result in a change in the way that the organisation does things

Who’s Listening Report: 2019

The 2019 report, the first in our series, was a small-scale research project We surveyed 140 people, ran two workshops and interviewed nine senior communication managers.


Some of the results from the survey indicated that the perceived importance of listening may not be matched in practice:

  • 46 percent of survey respondents strongly agreed that the insights gained from listening are of strategic importance to their organisation
  • Listening to employees was recorded as a ‘highly valued’ competence by less than a third of survey respondents
  • 66 percent of survey respondents agreed that senior managers are willing to listen to what employees have to say
  • 40 percent of survey respondents did not agree that senior managers take what employees say seriously

Sometimes senior managers say they want to listen but do not want to believe or accept what they hear or are genuinely unsure what to do about what they hear

When we discussed what gets in the way of listening, four themes emerged from qualitative data gathered in open questions, workshops and interviews:

  1. The way we define leadership – the way that leadership is understood to mean the ‘need to provide answers’ rather than involving listening to employees.
  2. Under-investment in listening capability development – are leaders are ‘wilfully deaf’?
  3. Cultural barriers – organisational cultures are not very conducive to listening and employees are often fearful of speaking out.
  4. Structures and processes not developed to support listening – organisations do not always have a systemic approach to listening to employees.

What has worked well in listening: “Using a range of methods (small and large group discussions, many channels, chance for anonymity)”

Our research indicates that some organisations have moved on from relying solely on an annual employee survey as a method of listening to employees. Although a regular survey is still used, according to the respondents to our survey and participants at workshops, many organisations have extended listening activities into regular face to face events and online communication.

There are many benefits that accrue from effective listening to employees, such as competitive advantage, engagement, advocacy, trust, innovation, resilience, learning and well-being. However, if these are to be realised then psychological safety has to be addressed. The fear that employees have about speaking out is very real. What also emerged from our research is the possibility that there is a fear for managers in listening to employees – they may not know how to listen and are worried about what may come at them.

Who’s Listening? 2019 Report Launch Webinar

Who's Listening? Report Part 1

Download the report to understand:

  • What constitutes good listening
  • Different styles of listening
  • What gets in the way of good listening practice
  • What the future of listening looks like
  • How communication managers can lead the way
Who's Listening? Report Part 1

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Who's Listening? Report 2020 Update

In the report you will discover:

  • Case studies of good listening from around the world
  • Practical tools for listening in your organisation
  • How leaders and communicators can listen effectively
Who's Listening? Report Part 2

We respect your privacy and handle your data with care. Please see our privacy policy.