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Effective listening for employees

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  • Picture of Howard Krais
    Howard Krais
  • Picture of Mike Pounsford FRSA
    Mike Pounsford FRSA
  • Picture of Dr Kevin Ruck
    Dr Kevin Ruck
  • Employment

How far have organisations moved on from believing that an annual employee survey is all that is required for good listening?

Howard Krais, Mike Pounsford FSRA and Dr Kevin Ruck explore.

For the last two years we have conducted interviews, run workshops and examined case studies, about what works in relation to employee feedback. And in our latest report we delve into this in more depth.

We have known for some time that an annual survey dominates listening. But the report, based on a survey with more than 500 communication managers, reveals just how dominant they still are. The ‘large-scale engagement survey’ is used by 59% of respondents at least annually and is mentioned most often as the approach delivering insights. Surveys can help measure the effectiveness of communication and highlight concerns and issues but for many they feel like a management tool rather than a platform for meaningful conversations.

Surprisingly, 77% of respondents said they rarely or never used focus groups, a listening method where deep insights were often cited as benefits in open comments in the survey. 

When it comes to digital listening, 53% of respondents said that employees are more comfortable speaking up on digital platforms than in other settings. And yet 58% of respondents said that digital listening is rarely or never used. This is an opportunity for anyone interested in developing listening capabilities that help to create new products and services or result in organisations that care about diversity; two outcomes that were most positively associated with digital listening in our research.

Listening is also good if you believe that it is important that your organisation treats people fairly. It was one of the strongest associations found in the survey. But it does rely on having an open mindset when listening to employee feedback. 

It is clear from our research that many organisations are over-reliant on an annual survey for listening and make the assumption that it is sufficient. This is reinforced by the way that respondents reported relatively high levels of listening in their organisation that were not then backed up by reports of what was done in practice. For example, 73% agreed or strongly agreed that their organisation ‘takes what employees say seriously’ compared with 46% who said their organisation ‘plans carefully to ensure listening happens throughout the organisation’ and 42% who said that it ‘responds promptly’.

This suggests that many organisations may think they listen but they are possibly only paying lip-service to it. Responding to what employees say is a fundamental component of listening. It is part and parcel of any healthy, reciprocal, relationship. In separate research, we found that responding to employees is strongly associated with employee engagement.

During the course of our research, we still occasionally come across people who question the value of listening to employees. To put it bluntly, they don’t see the point. In our latest study, we found a number of notable and statistically significant associations between listening and a wide range of beneficial outcomes such as:

  • Effective change management
  • Generation of good ideas on how to work effectively
  • Responding well to changing situations
  • Adapting quickly to unexpected new demands
  • Creating new products and services

As organisations re-emerge from the pandemic, it is clear that listening to employees provides a route to successful adoption of changes and working effectively in a new world of work. If there are communication managers and/or senior managers who have doubted the rationale for listening to employees, then the hard data in the report puts that scepticism to rest. Listening is definitely good for business.

Finally, there is strong evidence in the report that organisations that invest time in using data from listening to employees to drive operational performance reap the most benefits. There is a 38-point difference between organisations generating good ideas on how to work effectively and this is dependent on whether or not they use listening data to drive performance.

In summary, the annual employee survey has an important place in the approach taken to listening. But is not the be all and end all. It can provide a very useful, broad, context. Used in a complementary way with other methods, such as focus groups and digital listening, it can lead to a more collaborative way of working with benefits for employees and the organisation. Used on its own it is a very blunt tool indeed.


Dr Kevin Ruckis the co-founder of PR Academy, the UK’s largest provider of Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) qualifications. He is the editor and co-author of the respected textbook Exploring Internal Communication published by Routledge.

Mike Pounsford set up Banner McBride for WPP Group and founded management consultancy, Couravel, whose clients include private, public and third sector organisations.

He is the Past President of the UK Chapter of Internal Association of Business Communicators (IABC) and an IAF Certified Professional Facilitator.

Howard Krais was President of the UK Chapter of IABC in 2018, declaring his term as a Year of Listening. He leads communications for the Clean Air sector of Johnson Matthey and is a Board Member of the IABC UK chapter.

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