Who’s listening?

About the author

Kevin is a co-founder of PR Academy and is the 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.

This year myself, Mike Pounsford and Howard Krais conducted research with communication managers to get a greater insight into current listening practice. In 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 indicate 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

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.

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 it comes to good listening practice, face to face communication was preferred by respondents for listening. However, a multi-channel emerged as the basis for a broader organisation wide approach to listening.

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? report

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

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