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The power of listening: How listening to employees grows confidence in leadership

Be honest, are you an organisation with a leadership team that does more telling than listening? And, if you insist you listen, are you really listening to employees or paying lip service with little changing despite their input?

Employee engagement levels in the UK are amongst the worst in Europe, with fewer than one in 10 (9%) employees feeling enthusiastic about their job (Personnel Today). And while how well you listen is only one measure of employee engagement, it is a core component. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, two-thirds of UK companies aren't considered good listeners and just under half of employees feel their ideas are taken seriously (HR News).

Poor listening can undermine your team's confidence in leadership. In turn, this can affect morale, productivity and job satisfaction. It can ultimately lead to high employee turnover.

And poor listening is not just failing to set up the processes to listen or failing to make the time to listen; it's also failing to follow through on actions you've agreed to take as a result of employee feedback.

Channelled productively, employee voice can positively impact how an organisation performs and make it a place where people feel valued and want to stay (CIPD).

So how can you improve two-way communication in the workplace so you're best set up to listen and then act on what you hear? Our panellists at Best Companies Live Q1 2023 share their stories with us.

This article shares highlights from the conversation. If you prefer to watch the full session, click on the video above.

employee voice and organisation performance

1. Find ways to reach all your employees

It's unlikely all your staff will be desk-bound and ready to pounce on every email pinging into their inbox, so think about how you communicate and what opportunities you offer to listen.

A Best Companies b-Heard employee engagement survey can be a yearly or bi-annual listening tool – a useful focal point and prompt for further listening activities.

VetPartners, fifth in the Best Big Company to Work For in the UK category for Q1 2023, has used the survey as a means to engage more broadly.

"We constantly communicate while the surveys are on," says Chey Machin, VetPartners' Head of People UK. "We want the majority view. We want to know what our colleagues think and feel. We want to be that great place to work.

"And when the results come out, our CEO records a video to share our achievements, address any issues and challenges and ask our colleagues to come up with solutions. And we go out with that through every communication channel – internal Facebook and Instagram pages, newsletters and our monthly magazine. Our veterinary surgeons and nurses aren't sitting at laptops, so communicating with them is super important.

2. Deep dive into survey results

Tech company Intercity has achieved three-star status in the last two Best Companies employee engagement surveys – ranking top-30 for mid-sized companies in the overall 2022 league tables – but it's been a long journey.

Working with Best Companies for the best part of a decade, it had reached an impasse – consistently achieving 'One to Watch' status but finding those star ratings elusive.

"We thought 'how are these companies doing this?'" says Christina Pendleton, Chief People Officer. "The more we spoke to our partners with stars, the key theme that came back was that they invested in the data – something we hadn't done."

Christina's team got stuck into the data through the Workplace Insight platform, feeding back to the management team so they could open up a conversation with their team members.

"It was to say if you think we're doing well in this area, we'll do more of that, and if we're not doing so well here, what can we do better?" adds Christina.

"To say we've listened to what you've said, we value your opinion, and you've got a point, let's implement I - that's really powerful for engagement levels."

3. Listening needs commitment from the top

"As Martin Luther King said, 'A riot is the voice of the unheard,'" says Richard Nolan, COO and CPO of Epos Now.

Richard Nolan has helped the point-of-sale software provider "reset the parameters around the definition of listening" – crucial in addressing uncertainty as the company's high street merchant clients were going out of business due to the pandemic and economic downturn.

Epos Now's staff turnover rate was 120%; it's now closer to 20%.

"When the leadership team are listening, are they actually listening, demonstrating empathy and understanding the core issues staff are experiencing? Or are they just listening and not doing anything off the back of it, not really caring about the output?" questions Richard.

"When we started having really good conversations about how we drive engagement, how we support people and empower them, it became more meaningful, especially when we started to execute some of the feedback."

And VetPartners CEO Jo Malone is always in listening mode, with the 'feedback inbox' directed straight to her inbox.

"She wanted colleagues to have an avenue outside the engagement survey and listening groups where they could send their feedback or idea”, says Chey Machin. "She reads every single one. She then sends them to the relevant department to say, 'What can we do? What can we support? What's the solution?' Everything is followed up."

benefits of listening to employees

4. Successful listening and healthy workplace culture go hand-in-hand

Listening is not just part of a transactional workplace relationship of 'you said, we did'; it involves employees in creating the culture and defining the organisation's values.

"The biggest area of success (in bringing down our attrition rate) was realigning the business direction with our values proposition", says Epos Now's Richard Nolan. "It's redefining our culture, what we stand for, putting our customers at the heart of every decision we make and then integrating that with everything we do. It's your performance framework, how you onboard and the experience people live and breathe every day."

And with Enfuse Group's "nomadic workforce", ensuring there's a definable culture and innovative ways to be heard is essential.

"Our business is quite interesting," says Graeme Curwen, Co-Founder and CEO of the business and tech management consultancy – ranked third Best Small Company to Work for in the UK in Q1 2023. "Because we're a consultancy, most people come into our business and then spend around 90 per cent of their time in a client's environment. So, we need to think how we can make them feel part of our company."

Enfuse Group focuses on building relationships so that listening and action can thrive. This includes daily stand-ups, monthly 'Ask Gary' sessions with Graeme and his co-founder Harry – where employees can ask anything and get an open and honest answer, to 'Mark's Days' where everyone is invited to hang out and collaborate with the company's cultural lead.

"I'm proud that every time someone starts with us, at the end of the first week, they say it feels like they've been here forever. It's testament to everyone who works for us. It's those purposeful actions of doing the stand-ups, Mark's Days and quarterly away days that bring people together to make connections."

5. How you listen evolves as you do

Enfuse Group has enjoyed 250 per cent year-on-year growth in the past three years, changing how its leadership team listens.

"When we were five people, I spoke to everyone every day," says Graeme Curwen. "When we were 10 people, I spoke to everyone every month. Now I don't physically have the hours in the week to do that. So now we look at the 'Ask Gary' sessions as a listening platform. And one of our directors looks after our pastoral care, listening to people and their challenges and feeding that to the leadership group to see how we can support."

And for Intercity's Christina Pendleton, having listening structures and forums are part of your cultural bedrock and should evolve with you.

"We schedule things from one-to-ones to focus groups when we get the Best Companies survey results. It's really important to have that as part of your culture. Doing that, people feel they can come up to you with their feedback and know it'll be taken on board."

Our panellists have shown that listening to employees can take various forms but that, without exception, for listening to translate into action and bring confidence in leadership, it must be culturally embedded into the organisation and be part and parcel of its values and what it stands for.

Is listening something you do well, or could you do it better? Our b-Heard employee engagement survey will help you benchmark where you're at. You could become one of the Best Companies to Work For in 2023, or the insight could put you on track to become one of our future top-ranked businesses.


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