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How to build a successful employee listening strategy

Discover the key steps to building a successful employee listening strategy. Boost engagement, minimise resistance to change, and empower your team.

3 Jul 2023 | 9 min read

According to MIT Sloan, 1 in 10 workers experience their workplace culture as toxic, and Microsoft’s research found that 48% of employees felt burned out at work. Without employee listening, it’s very unlikely that you’ll really know how your people are feeling, and that can have significant consequences for personal and organisational performance.

Employee listening is absolutely vital to improving employee engagement, organisational culture and organisational performance. An effective employee listening strategy will provide leaders with clear, detailed and honest feedback from all levels of their organisation, resulting in information that can be used to address shortcomings, inform change strategies and enhance the employee experience.

An employee listening strategy underpins all positive change in an organisation, and in this article, we’re going to look at some of the key features in devising and delivering an employee listening strategy of your own.

What is an employee listening strategy?

An employee listening strategy is a how an organisation can encourage, listen to and act on employee needs, opinions, feelings and feedback.  From minor concerns to major problems, an effective employee listening strategy is imperative to the surfacing and resolution of the issues that affect your people and improving their experience in the workplace.

Without an employee listening strategy, it’s very difficult for leaders to gain a real insight into how their people are feeling. Without real insight, concerns go unchecked, flashpoints remain undetected and issues worsen, which can have real negative consequences including low employee morale, high turnover and change resistance. GoodHire’s survey found that of the 82% of surveyed employees who would consider quitting because of a bad manager, 62% gave digital communication as a cause.

An effective employee listening strategy can be made up of many different listening methods depending on what best suits your organisation. From pulse meetings to surveys to digital communication channels, some methods are more effective than others, and it’s important to use the right ones in order to see your desired results.

Why is an employee listening strategy important? 

An employee listening strategy is important for a number of reasons, and the benefits of such a strategy will be widely felt, from the individual employee to the organisation as a whole. An effective employee listening strategy shows employees that leaders care about how their people are feeling, what their needs are, and what needs to change in order to improve the employee experience. 

The need for an employee listening strategy is summarised neatly by Sidney Yoshida’s ‘Iceberg of Ignorance’ study. In said study, Yoshida found that “only 4% of an organisation’s front-line problems are known by top management, 9% are known by middle management, 74% by supervisors and 100% by employees.” The crux of this study is that leaders cannot be taking fully informed action if they are only aware of 4% of the problems in their organisation - that’s why it’s crucial to hear from employees at every single level.

Rungway Icerberg of Ignorance (no Rungway logo)

Such a strategy will bring a number of benefits to the employee and the organisation, but one of the most significant ones is the way it builds a culture of trust. The very act of listening to employees and taking meaningful actions as a result will show your people that leaders are listening, that their opinions are valued and that the organisation genuinely wants to improve the employee experience for their people.

A culture of trust feeds into stronger employee engagement, which in turn boosts workplace morale and helps to improve performance. Over 80% of North American CFOs who were surveyed by MIT Sloan acknowledged that improving their company culture would boost their organisation’s financial performance. Furthermore, Gallup reports that businesses with engaged employees recorded a 23% higher profit compared to businesses with disengaged, unhappy staff.

One of the first steps in improving organisational culture is listening to what employees have to say about it. 

6 ways to create an employee listening strategy

work out what you want to achieve

There’s no point going blindly into the process of building an employee listening strategy. Like any strategy development process, you need to know why you’re doing it and what you want to achieve, as it’ll help you fine tune your methods and ensure they’re as effective as possible. Some things to consider include:

  • Do you want to improve communication between leadership and employees?
  • Are you trying to improve workplace morale?
  • Are you trying to measure change resistance, change advocacy or change fatigue amongst your people?
  • Are you trying to find out what your people want from future organisational change?

Use the right methods

It’s important to use appropriate methods for employee listening, as choosing the wrong ones can have the opposite effect. Certain channels are more effective for listening to employees than others - for example, unless you’re a very small organisation, one-to-one meetings aren’t feasible as they’ll take up far too much time and they’re also unlikely to create the psychological safety needed for employees to speak up. Methods of collecting data include:

create psychological safety

Without psychological safety, your employees won’t feel comfortable speaking up and your employee listening strategy won’t generate enough feedback for you to listen to and act on. Psychological safety means creating an environment where employees know they can speak up and voice their opinions (within reason) without fear of judgement or consequences. 

If your organisation does not have psychological safety, employees are unlikely to share honest thoughts and opinions, which results in a lack of useful insights for leaders to act on, and less chance of improvements being made. Ways of creating psychological safety include:

  • Regular, two-way communication
  • Visible leadership
  • A culture of acknowledgement and praise
  • Anonymous communication with leadership, using a platform like Rungway

The impact of psychological safety is clear on Rungway: people of colour post three times as much as their white colleagues on the platform (which provides psychological safety), and women ask 30% more question on career than men. 

be prepared to hear the truth

When your employee listening strategy is underway, and you’re surfacing these valuable insights from your employees, you need to remember that it’s not all going to be glowingly positive. The whole point of psychological safety in these strategies is that it gives people the confidence to say what they really think without fear of judgement, so if your strategy is working, you’re going to hear some uncomfortable truths. As our founder Julie Chakraverty says, you need to ‘be relentless in surfacing data’. Hearing the negatives will teach leaders a lot more than hearing the positives, so it’s crucial that you’re ready to hear the real truth.

identify your stakeholders

Before you can put your employee listening strategy into place, you need to establish who your key stakeholders are. Once you have established this, you can then determine what each stakeholder’s role is in the listening process, and you can work on developing the cohesion and understanding that your strategy needs. Stakeholders can include:

  • HR
  • Senior management
  • Line managers
  • Legal personnel

create understanding

According to Leadership IQ, only 15% of employees understand the rationale behind their leaders’ strategy. In order for employee listening to be effective, everyone involved must understand why you’re doing it and what needs to be done for it to work. If your employees understand why you’re taking these steps to gather feedback and data, they’re more likely to buy into it, and thus help your strategy be more effective. The same goes for leaders, managers and HR staff who will be responsible for enacting the listening strategy - the clearer the goal, the more likely you are to be successful.

What types of employee listening tools are businesses using now?

employee engagement surveys

Gallup’s research found that employees who strongly agree that their organisation acts on survey results are 1.9 times more likely to be engaged. These surveys are commonly used and can be sent out via email to everyone in the organisation, and if responded to correctly, these surveys can give leaders a snapshot of the current situation in the organisation.

There are caveats, though. Firstly, it’s important to note that the snapshots you get from a survey are just that; insights into the temperature of a workplace at a certain point in time. If you do a survey every six months, for example, you’ll only see how people are feeling at those points - you won’t know what’s been happening in between those surveys.

You must also consider survey fatigue - people can get tired of surveys, which will hamper the detail and quality of the feedback they give. Plus, someone has to go through survey responses to unearth important data, which takes considerable time and effort, particularly in a large organisation.

pulse surveys

Shorter in length and sent out more regularly than a classic employee engagement survey, pulse surveys are useful for getting a clearer picture of employee sentiment around a certain topic or smaller cluster of topics. Again, it’s important to note that pulse surveys are not an effective substitute for proper communication with your people - rather, they should be used in conjunction with real, two-way dialogue.

You should still be mindful of survey fatigue and the effort required to analyse the pulse survey results, but they can be helpful to leaders as long as they are not used too frequently.

lifecycle surveys

Lifecycle surveys are usually deployed at specific points during an employee’s time with an organisation. Some of the most common types are onboarding and exit surveys; exit surveys in particular can yield interesting and useful data, as an employee is more likely to be honest in their feedback when they know they’re leaving the organisation.

An onboarding survey will obviously not yield anywhere near as much data as an exit survey, but it can be very useful for gathering feedback about the onboarding process itself. This feedback can be invaluable in assessing how your organisation presents itself to new hires, and it can help you make your processes more effective.

Whichever surveys you decide to adopt, it’s important that you do not make them your sole method of employee listening. They can be effective for certain requirements, but they will not give you the full picture, so any surveys must be paired with more effective types of communication.

Businesses need to be continually listening to employees

Surveys have a place, but they are never going to give you the full picture of what’s really going on in your organisation. It takes a lot of work for internal teams to work through the data gathered by surveys, and usually, by the time the results are collated and analysed, they’re out of date.

With Rungway, a continuous employee listening platform, leaders can build stronger connections with their people, which lays the groundwork for more honest, detailed conversations and a deeper understanding of how people are feeling. Instead of the narrow focus and unbalanced nature of top-down dialogue, two-way conversations allow leaders to extend their reach and keep the conversation going in an organic fashion, which is more comfortable for their people.

When you hear from your people in these two-way dialogues, you can respond to them quickly and directly, which shows them that they’re being listened to. A ‘listen-up’ culture is just as important as a speak-up one, and it’s vital that leaders bring such a culture to their organisations.

Real dialogue. Real action. Real change.

Rungway is a platform built for two-way dialogues; it helps leaders make impact through connections, which helps to encourage faster feedback loops and accelerate organisational change.

It does this by utilising constructive anonymity to allow users to voice their opinions without fear of judgement, and it allows them to do so in a way that leaders can see and respond to directly. This helps leaders understand what’s really going on in their organisation, so they can take meaningful action, improve the employee experience and build a culture of communication and trust.

With an effective employee listening strategy in place, leaders will learn more from their employees about the day-to-day of their organisation, which will enable them to take the appropriate actions in good time. Doing so helps to foster a culture of trust, which improves employee engagement and performance, which then has a positive knock-on effect on organisational performance.

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