Communicators spend most of their time talking. So do executives. But how much time do we actually spend listening? And when we do listen, are we really any good at it?

Most communications, HR and leadership teams understand that listening is important to make sure the right messages are getting through and that we’re out in front of rumours and weird misinformation, but I don’t think we’re giving the act of listening its due, particularly when it comes to our traumatized, frightened mid-pandemic workforce.

Sure, we’re measuring the heck out of some things, like that fun virtual pizza lunch last week and the town hall the week before, but are we actually understanding the lived experiences of our employees and their families? Or are we making sh*t up based on our own experiences?

Understanding not just what people think but what has happened to them and what is worrying them is going to do more for engagement and motivation than another email blast. It’s going to help them understand what is happening, but also why it’s happening. When we can connect employees to purpose and give them the information they need to get stuff done, we drive meaningful change. We also create agency.

Listening Theatre

You know about agency; it’s that tingly feeling that happens when employees see they have some ownership and influence in the organization. It’s powerful stuff, and listening reinforces agency. 

But it’s not enough to go out and listen. We need to be seen to be listening so employees can see agency in action. Welcome to Listening Theatre: the part of our program where we make it really frigging obvious that we are listening our little earbuds off.

Now, before you send yet another survey, let’s consider what listening actually looks like. Listening, done well, looks like including qualitative data along with the quantitative stuff. It looks like interviews, focus groups, places to post anonymous feedback. It looks like the Q&A at the end of a town hall and the more intimate conversations of team meetings. 

Listening can also be done at scale. Not just through a survey but by looking at what’s going on in collaboration spaces like Slack rooms; what threads are popping up on MS Teams; what are they saying about you on Glassdoor and Google?

Bullsh*t fatigue is real

Back to surveys. We recently worked with a large organization that needed to understand some stuff about remote workers. “But don’t,” they warned “send another survey. People have survey fatigue.” 

They do? Pandemic fatigue is one thing but the last time I checked, people love to talk about themselves and to exercise that agency to effect change. Sometimes that looks like a one-to- five likert scale. So I suggest that while survey fatigue is bullsh*t, Bullsh*t Fatigue is very real.

BS Fatigue is that common syndrome where no matter how many surveys you answer or how many “Breakfast-with-the-Boss” sessions you attend, nothing ever really changes as a result of your input. 

As tempting as it is to go make a survey, I think good communicators have a duty to step back and consider whether employees can point to any changes that came about because of their opinions.

Managers are terrible listeners

A lot of listening is informal. It’s the hallway conversations, the banter before a team meeting and casual asides during a one-on-one. While managers may dismiss this stuff as idle chatter, the people doing the chattering have every expectation that the boss is taking note. 

If you’re thinking you have this nailed, think again. Before the lockdown, fewer than four in ten employees had a daily conversation with their supervisor. By June that number had dropped ten percent, to a little more than a quarter among remote workers. Seriously? The pre-pandemic number is tragic but it’s downright dangerous that so few employees are talking to their bosses everyday. When we erode agency, we erode trust, engagement and retention. The window is closing on fixing that one, my friends.

For more about how to listen and what to do with all that data, check out Shut Up and Listen, the latest Swear Jar podcast from the Academy of Business Communications. Be sure you take a look at the many links to new research and great reading, along with our handy reference tool about the best ways to use different listening platforms.