Communication is about more than just pushing information out. Successful organisations become even more successful when they continually listen to what their internal audience is telling them.

8th November 2019

Are you a talker or a listener? In an average day at the coalface of internal comms, what percentage of your time do you spend sending communications out, and how much time do you spend receiving, processing and considering communication from others? Be honest.

Research suggests that, in most cases, the percentage of time spent talking will be a lot higher than the percentage spent listening.

Jim Macnamara, distinguished professor of communication at the University of Technology Sydney,  has been studying organisational listening for years. His research shows that around 80 per cent of communication efforts actually consist of sending outbound messages. Even in the best cases, it’s around 60 per cent; for some organisations it’s more like 95 per cent. “We’ve interpreted communication as mainly information – putting stuff out. But it’s a two-way process,” says Jim.

Move away from one-way

In a 2015 report based on studies of 36 organisations, Jim concludes that “most organisations listen sporadically at best, often poorly, and sometimes not at all”. When they do listen, it tends to be for their own, narrowly defined purposes – like driving repeat sales via CRM systems or getting social media influencers to promote their products.

Even activities that emphasise “dialogue” and “relationships” are, in reality, overwhelmingly one-way.

Most of our time is taken up with making announcements and communicating organisational messages – both of which fall firmly into the “talking” category. And yet we’d all probably agree that the volume of communications we’re turning out is more than our audience can absorb.

The problem – both in our professional and personal lives – is that we generally find talking easy, while listening takes real effort and concentration. Or, as US TV writer Rob LaZebnik puts it in an article for The Wall Street Journal: “Talking is like drinking a great cabernet. Listening is like doing squats.”

The benefits of listening

The potential benefits of effective organisational listening are considerable, continues Jim.

“I find it puzzling that we spend so much time telling employees what we want them to know, and yet they know so much. They’ve got ideas, they know what processes are working… You’ve got to listen to them to understand the internal environment – but also, they’re out there talking to customers much more than senior management are, so they are a conduit for the voice of the customer.”

Robyn Dennis is organisational effectiveness manager at CO-OP Financial Services, a US payments and financial technology company created by and for credit unions. She’s part of a multidisciplinary team that oversees an annual survey and conducts more regular, targeted activities to capture employee voice.

The survey is run by MaritzCX, which specialises in both customer and employee experience and also runs a client survey for CO-OP Financial Services. This gives the organisation the opportunity to combine data and see how internal issues and activities are influencing the client experience.

Taking the time to listen is “one of the most important things we can do for the organisation,” says Robyn. “Employees are our number one asset and resource and, in order for us to provide a great client experience, we have to have great people who feel satisfied and engaged in their jobs.”

Stewart Johnstone, a lecturer in HR and employment relations at Newcastle University Business School, says: “Academic studies tend to suggest a performance benefit from employees speaking up. One of the biggest advantages of encouraging a listening culture is getting access to what employees know. Employees have ideas and solutions that organisations might be missing out on.”

Major organisational crises can develop when employees don’t speak up. “When organisations get into the news for the wrong reasons, you think, surely someone somewhere knew something about that,” Stewart says.

On top of these reasons to listen, there’s the benefit of how it makes people feel. “Most people like to express their opinions and, when they do, not only might they come up with great ideas, it’s also motivational for them,” says Stewart.

Performance boost

Ghassan Karian is managing partner of Karian and Box, which works on employee engagement with a long list of organisations, including Aviva, Barclays and BP. He believes listening pays off big time.

“What we have found conclusively is that the higher the perception of listening, the higher the empowerment, the lower the sickness absence, marginally the lower the attrition, substantially the higher the sales,” says Ghassan.

But with budgets for internal comms always under pressure, it’s easy for the slower, harder, less urgent work of listening to be neglected in favour of the immediate imperative to get information out.

Sarah Meurer is head of internal communications at Nestlé UK and Ireland. “In my experience, organisations have the opportunity to do less while achieving more by using a listening strategy to apply insight to shape content plans, minimise reactive communications and equip leaders with the information they need to enable business performance.”

Sarah and her HR colleagues are currently developing Nestlé’s “always on” listening strategy as part of the company’s employee engagement approach, which includes better use of technology in factory sites.

“The internal communication profession has an opportunity to learn a lot from what happens in the customer experience space,” she says. “Companies who measure the experience customers have when they interact with their products and services could take the opportunity to use the same process, technology, systems and reporting methods to listen to their employees.”

More effective listening can also support the workplace wellbeing agenda, she adds.

“At Nestlé, we’re working hard to continually improve our culture of inclusivity – a culture where our people feel comfortable to bring their whole selves to work. That means leaders and managers creating a climate where people feel safe to truly be themselves. This requires a different kind of listening, creating the time and space for people to share their personal stories without fear of judgement.”

Theory into practice

The benefits of listening seem clear, so what’s holding organisations back?

Stewart Johnstone says his research suggests systems for tracking employee voice “don’t always work as intended”.

“These systems are often launched at a particular time for a particular reason, and they have initial enthusiasm,” says Stewart. “The challenge is sustaining things over time. They might fizzle out, lose momentum. Maybe priorities shifted. A champion might move on and the project doesn’t survive. The role of champions is crucial in keeping these things alive.”

Jim Macnamara’s research has led him to develop an “architecture” of listening for organisations. There needs to be the right policies, processes, technologies, resources and skills. But most importantly of all, there needs to be the right culture, says Jim.

“If senior management doesn’t believe employees have something to contribute, it’s never going to happen. It’s going to be tokenistic.” The most important single factor, he says, “is a progressive CEO who is supportive of two-way communication”.

Ghassan believes it ultimately comes down to “recruiting and rewarding the right leadership behaviour”.

“As a leader, do you give off that you know everything?” he asks. “Or are you willing to be criticised, and show a level of humility? Are you looking for people who are open and willing to be challenged?”

Stewart agrees, adding: “From a managerial perspective, you have to be quite thick-skinned to be willing to be questioned and have your ideas critiqued. For some, that might be something they’re totally used to, but for others that can be uncomfortable.”

Targeted listening

Once you have the right people in place, you need to make sure your listening efforts are effective – and that means targeted. Annual surveys with the same questions over and over again can provide useful time-series data, but Ghassan says: “Most leaders go, ‘Thanks for the number, now let’s get on to the more meaningful stuff.’”

Ghassan calls for “more regular forms of agile listening focused on priorities”. The trick is to make sure it’s more than just “a replication of the annual process that is run lots more times”.

For example, some companies run monthly surveys with different questions each time, chosen to inform the activities going on at that moment.

Ghassan suggests: “That kind of agile approach where you’re shifting your focus of what you listen to, to things that will make a difference to the lives of employees, is successful because it’s targeted, leads to concrete results and gives a sense that the business is listening on things that matter. Internal comms professionals should be finding out what’s going on in the coming year, which stakeholders want input, and shaping questions that go into an agile process.”

Closing the loop

It’s also vital to act on what you learn, Ghassan advises. “Organisations waste money putting in place tools for listening. I would say to some organisations starting on this journey, don’t even bother putting in place listening programmes unless you’re going to put in place the hard-wired mechanisms that are going to close the loop. A lot of historic listening programmes have been the equivalent of the kindly doctor sitting listening to the patient, but with no prescription, no solution and mute feedback. You nod and then walk away. No wonder employees feel frustrated.”

Ghassan has coached CEOs to talk about what the organisation is doing as a result of what employees have said. “That has to be inherent in every bit of communication – not just a week before you put out another survey.”

Robyn Dennis adds: “The survey results are just the beginning. You can’t do a survey and identify things that potentially need improving, without committing to taking action based on what you learn.”

At Nestlé, the employee engagement strategy allows different parts of the business to use a framework to assess their engagement maturity level, including how they monitor employee voice.

Sarah Meurer says: “We’re using the maturity model to enable different categories and functions to reflect on how much they currently listen and how to apply different agile listening tools, and then we share back the quarterly measurement to enable continuous improvement.”

Use broadcast technology to listen

The good news is that the technology for better listening exists, says Jim Macnamara.

“In the comms industry, we’re using a huge array of technology, and we’re mostly using it for broadcasting messages. You need those systems for distributing information, but they’re also technologies for listening.”

For instance, any organisation that runs a call centre will be recording calls and having employees take notes. That means it’s possible to use text mining and even voice recognition software to spot common words, themes and issues, says Jim.

Net Promoter Score is another widely used tool that could be employed much more effectively. The key is that “it’s not the score itself, it’s those couple of questions you ask around why”, says Jim. “What was it you loved if you’re a promoter? What went wrong if you’re a detractor? If I have thousands of answers and I see the same issues cropping up, it tells me I’ve got something to fix.”

The effort and investment involved in analysing all these open-ended responses puts many companies off, says Jim, but they’re missing out on a goldmine of insight. “There’s no doubt that open, active listening is a cost, but so far my research suggests the benefits far outweigh that cost.”

In fact, the great thing about organisational listening is that if you can rebalance your comms effectively, it doesn’t even have to cost more. Jim says: “It’s not a matter of spending more money, it’s a matter of reallocating. Talk less, listen more. A lot of external communication is wasted anyway, so first you get rid of the wasted stuff. I don’t see a net cost in listening better.”

Ways of listening

Listen to your employees... and get customer viewpoints
Listening to employees helps you see how you are performing through the eyes of the customer. Companies including US financial services provider Fidelity and telecoms giant Sprint appoint ambassadors from among their customer-facing workforce to make sure the customer feedback is heard loud and clear throughout the business. At the same time, it makes employees feel empowered and involved.

The power of asking
In a 2018 Harvard Business Review article, two HR analytics execs at Facebook described how the company uses surveys to keep people engaged, as well as to gather data. Even when the insights needed could probably be gained from just a sample of employees, they said: “We often invite the whole company to participate so they have a chance to contribute to the conversation.” In some cases, simply asking about something can be enough to prompt behaviour change.

Blending data for deeper insight
Survey responses are even more powerful when you combine them with what else you know about employees. In a recent blog post, Patrick Coolen, head of people analytics at ABN AMRO, discussed how the Dutch bank brings survey responses together with other data on sales, job roles, training and so on. This allows feedback to be segmented according to employee “personas”, such as new joiners, senior managers or client-facing staff. In this way, the bank is able to identify knowledge gaps, target training and help employees prioritise the most productive activities.

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