I’ve opened a few recent workshops using electronic polling applications. (If you’re not familiar with the technology, it might be worth a look.) I asked a few questions to establish a base of understanding and interest, and using their cell phones, participants texted their answers.
The responses were aggregated and displayed in real time; I then used the data to drive the rest of the session. The groups loved this approach and insisted it be incorporated into future workshops.
I have to admit, the technology is pretty cool — but the groups’ positive reactions struck me as disproportionate to the level of freshness and flash. It was clear that something else was going on. Could it be that at our cores, human beings want evidence that what we think, speak, or share is real? That is has power? That it makes a difference?
“If employees feel like they are throwing pennies down a bottomless well and they never hear a splash, they are going to stop throwing the pennies. We have got to show them that we are listening.” — “Lead for Loyalty” by Frederick F. Reichheld.
In many organizations today, employees have come to expect that their perspectives are powerless, their input ineffectual and their thoughts thankless. Organizations commit tremendous energy and resources to help leaders become better listeners. They teach this skill in an ever-evolving array of flavors: reactive, reflective, proactive, empathic, co-active. Yet leaders aren’t showing that they’re listening and employees aren’t hearing the splash.
Executives would likely bristle at an employee’s perception that they aren’t being heard. Sophisticated listening systems and tools abound in organizations. Yet there are fundamental disconnects and mixed messages for many employees.
False involvement in decision-making
In an effort to elevate involvement and engagement, leaders ask for input to decisions they have no intention of turning over to employees. When employees’ reactions are ignored, they miss the splash.
Employee-input systems launched but not maintained
Well-intentioned systems and processes are established to systematically gather ideas and innovations, but the organization can’t dedicate the resources to keep it up. The feedback loop is left eternally open, and employees miss the splash.
Hungry for data, many organization engage in annual surveys of employee perceptions, engagement, and satisfaction. Energy is invested in data gathering and analysis. Statistical abnormalities and data anomalies are explained away. And the survey goes out again next year. When employees engage in repeated rounds of data gathering and don’t see changes as a result, they miss the splash.
The simple act of listening
Leaders have learned to reflect emotions and paraphrase content. But, when it’s left at that and employees don’t see action as a result, they miss the splash. Despite an increased ability to engage in a range of listening activities, employees are feeling less “heard” than ever before.
From hear to hero
For the most part, employees trust that their leaders are hearing the information they share. What’s missing is a commitment to doing something with that. That’s what meaningful listening would look like. And that’s the splash employees are looking for.
Leaders today need to practice listening 2.0, which involves changing the focus from soliciting and gathering more input to actually using it. This new focus involves three critical steps.
- Apply a strategic lens to what you’re asking. Really be intentional, making sure that there’s a good likelihood that you’ll be able to act on what you hear.
- Do something with what you hear. Take appropriate action. Make the employees’ investment in sharing information with you pay off in some way.
- Let others know how you’re using their input. Communicating the value of what’s been shared in terms of the action you intend to take reinforces employee commitment. It also trains employees about the kind of information you find most valuable so they can bring you more of that. Sharing why you’re not acting on information is equally helpful. It communicates your bias to make productive use of what others offer up and encourages more input in the future.
Listening 2.0 blasts past the old artifacts of listening (“uh-huh,” “interesting,” “tell me more,” “if I’m hearing you correctly”) by focusing beyond the message to something more fundamental and satisfying to employees: how to systematically make use of it. And that is sure to make quite a splash.
What kind of listening splash are you making with your employees? How does your organization systematically use what it hears?
Julie Winkle Giulioni is the author of “Help Them Grow or Watch Them Go: Career Conversations Employees Want,” with Bev Kaye. Giulioni has spent the past 25 years improving performance through learning. She consults with organizations to develop and deploy innovative instructional designs and training worldwide. You can learn more about her consulting, speaking and blog at JulieWinkleGiulioni.com.