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Build a culture for listening

The latest in the IoIC’s series of roundtables for Fellows (our most senior grade of membership) focused on the subject of ‘strategic listening’. Co-hosted by IoIC President Suzanne Peck and leadership consultant Dominic Walters, the session was an in-depth and wide-ranging exploration of how organisations should seek to listen to their people for genuine strategic impact, based on real experiences of implementing such approaches.

The Covid factor

After short introductions, the conversation almost immediately turned to the pandemic and its impacts on employee communication, with three points particularly prevalent:

  • the importance of listening to employees coming back from furlough – their hopes and fears about returning to work
  • the increasing focus on well-being in many organisations and the consequent need for being alert to what employees are saying (both individually and collectively)
  • the need to ask for employee input around working practices after the pandemic – particularly in terms of hybrid working.

On this last point there was a warning that communicators need to ensure there is no differential between how much employees are listened to at home or in the office. The role of IC teams in the post-pandemic organisation may be focused on identifying and rebalancing these kinds of inequities.

Leading by listening

Leaders were another big focus of the discussion, with a particular emphasis on their role in establishing trust. Some of the Fellows welcomed the ‘humanising’ impact that the pandemic has had on perceptions of senior people. With one CEO it was as simple as encouraging them to have their camera on during all meetings, another introduced their new pet dog to employees. These forms of ‘personal disclosure’ may seem simple or frivolous, but they serve a real purpose in removing barriers between leaders and their employees.

Of course, trust needs to be earned in more substantial ways for a genuine dialogue to be possible. Executives must respond constructively to what they hear. Even more importantly, they (and their organisations) must act on what is heard. And they must track the impact of the action – and report back what they’ve done. Failure to do any of these things will lead to a suspicion that the listening is not genuine. Done repeatedly, they build the kind of psychological safety people need to bring their best thoughts and ideas to the table.

A couple of Fellows shared examples of CEOs who had performance goals explicitly related to listening and engagement. This was seen to have a positive impact on buy-in across those organisations.

Localise and personalise

One Fellow shared an example of a global strategy rollout where regional teams had been able to tailor the communication to work for their people. This enabled feedback to be captured and processed at a regional level. It was an illustration of the need to localise and personalise – something that came up several times.

If leaders and managers at different levels and locations are to listen effectively, they must have the skills to do so. A Fellow gave an example of ‘listening skills’ being embodied in the leadership competency framework. Enrolling all managers in listening can help ensure that feedback is straighter and more honest: people are generally happier to express their concerns to their supervisor than they would be to the MD. There was some discussion about the willingness of management groups to commit to the development of ‘softer’ skills. The consensus here was not to present these as ‘soft’ – but to illustrate in real terms the difference that listening can make to the organisation (or the potential cost of failing to listen).

The benefits of localising and personalising were also reinforced by some of the group who had experience of applying personality profiling (the DiSC model in particular) to communication challenges. In particular, this was seen to have advantages in terms of helping leaders and managers to appreciate that not everyone wants to be listened to in the same way – and to apply different approaches in different places.

Top tips

The Fellows finished the call by sharing their personal ‘top tips’ for embedding strategic listening. These included:

  • listen from the start – so what you hear has the maximum opportunity to make a difference
  • write focused questions to help initiate conversations
  • ask, analyse and act – with a particular emphasis on the third
  • get senior leaders on board – everyone else takes their cue from them
  • choose the right tool or method for the organisation and its people
  • consider the need to listen to different people differently
  • the ‘moments of truth’ happen when leaders hear something they don’t like – make sure they are prepared.

There was clearly a sense across the group of Fellows that listening would only become more important for organisations. As one said: “people arrive in organisations now with an expectation that they will be heard”. If this is true, we must do everything we can as a profession to ensure the expectation is met.

Find out more abut IoIC Fellowship.

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