Articles 4 min read

Your Listening Strategy Won’t Improve Employee Engagement

I often hear people use the terms “listening strategy” and “employee engagement strategy” interchangeably.

News flash: they are not the same thing. If you’re all in on a listening strategy, it will not improve employee engagement. I’ll bet my career on it.

Why? Simply put, a listening strategy is not an employee engagement program. It leaves out the keys to improving employee engagement: conversations and action.

Listening strategy vs. employee engagement

Now I’m not accusing any organization using a listening strategy with malice. I’m sure your intentions are good. But if I had to guess, this is probably what your listening strategy looks like:

  • Questions … and questions … and questions. You and other stakeholders toil for months to create the questions you’ll include in your annual employee survey. After all, you only get one shot every year to gather feedback. The result: a buffet of 60 or more survey questions that will leave employees stuffed and ready for a nap. Followed by…

  • Data … and data … and data. Now that you’ve asked employees 60 questions, you have servers full of data. On to data analysis. But, hmm—where to start? You can probably just work over the weekend to identify some trends emerging in your organization of 8,000 employees. That’s realistic. Leading to…

  • Plans … and plans … and plans. Survey results should always be presented in a pretty slide deck, right? And you really should start organizing the 15 meetings you’ll need to present the results to all the department heads—especially since they’ll need at least eight weeks to make their own plans that will be based off of your data analysis.

Before you know it, a year has gone by, you’ve had countless meetings, created presentations galore, debated over where to focus, and have very little to show for it—just in time to start the process all over again. Please, get me off this hamster wheel.

It’s not your fault—but it’s also not an impactful strategy.

Here’s the difference: an employee engagement program doesn’t stop at listening. If you’re truly looking to improve employee engagement, you have to initiate actual conversations with and among employees, and then follow through by taking action. An effective employee engagement program includes:

  • Frequent feedback. Your organization’s people likely interact with each other every business day. Imagine if you saw a friend every day for a year, and they asked for your opinion just once—only to do nothing with it other than to say, “Oh, that’s interesting.” That’s not the way to build a relationship that can weather life’s twists and turns. 

Business is no different. When you collect feedback more frequently, you and your organization’s other leaders can have conversations with your people about what matters most. As a result, you’re more focused and can take action without feeling overwhelmed.

  • Widely shared data. Collecting feedback more frequently does no good if you then sit on it or hoard it. It’s vital to get the employee engagement survey results out to managers and team leaders ASAP so they can start collaborating with their employees on what actions to take (and how to take them). For true change to happen, you need to empower managers to own the survey results and initiate the conversations with their employees that will lead to action-taking. 
  • Transparent conversations. Speaking of conversations, they’re key to effective employee engagement. The purpose of employee engagement conversations is to share survey results and collaborate on action-taking at all levels in the organization. The conversations let employees know you hear them, understand them, and want to take action to make improvements. Discussing only the good, while glossing over the bad, only makes the process seem like a marketing event and not a true driver of change.
  • Localized action-taking. Here’s where paralysis can set in with a listening strategy. But if you’re collecting more focused (and therefore less) data, you’ll be in a better position to take action. We’re all more likely to act when the change at hand is both manageable (i.e. we can see the desired result) and local (i.e. we’ll feel the impact). What does this mean for HR? They enable teams to own action taking, remove barriers, and share success stories. They DO NOT own action taking across the organization and are not “blamed” for any subsequent lack of change. 

Where a listening strategy fails

In case you’re still convinced you’re improving your organization’s employee engagement through a listening strategy, let me hammer home this point: many listening strategies lack even the basics of effective listening. Think about it—when you imagine an effective listener, do you think of someone who:

  • listens infrequently, asking employees their opinions once or less per year?
  • overcomplicates the message, asking about as many topics as possible, when many of those topics are merely nice to know and not mission-critical?
  • demonstrates passive, not active, listening, stashing the collected data in a spreadsheet, where it may—or may not—make it to managers and back to employees?

You can barely even characterize this as listening. It’s more like a one-way input, with your organization only collecting a bunch of data and not engaging in a dialogue by sharing the findings. Would you behave like this in any of your other relationships?

How to evolve beyond a listening strategy to an employee engagement program

It’s not as scary as it sounds. In fact, you’ll likely find it liberating. No more daunting annual employee surveys!

You know how to collect employee data, so that’s not the problem. Now you will begin to leverage more focused data to regularly talk about the topics that matter most to employees and the business. These conversations fill in the gaps that are missing from listening strategies, such as:

  • reflecting on what’s being said
  • continually adjusting your approach based upon feedback
  • empowering departments and teams to own their own data and subsequent conversations
  • including employees in developing solutions
  • changing behaviour as a result

You will find that conversations lead to action. Rather than feeling the onus to make broad, sweeping changes across your organization, you and your team leaders will be able to break down the work into smaller pieces. My colleagues and I use the conversation framework, with a handy acronym, ACT to link conversations to action-taking:

  • Acknowledge where we are
  • Collaborate on where we want to go
  • Take one step forward

Your listening strategy is not wasted work. But it’s incomplete. To improve employee engagement, don’t stop at listening. Initiate conversations and follow through by taking simple steps to action.

The Business Transformation Network has shared this article in partnership with Glint.

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