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I recently shared my career transition story as I moved from VP of Sales into the Chief People Officer role at Emplify. As our company co-founder, I feel personally responsible for building the most highly-engaged team and world-class culture — not only for our team’s benefit but also to be the best possible example for our customers.

I’ve already begun spending time in this new role learning from the best strategic people leaders in the business. Their insights combined with the employee engagement data from our own solution, my team and I will be developing a people operations laboratory of sorts. In this “lab environment,” we’ll build a best-in-class culture here at Emplify while innovating on old processes, trying new things, and creating proven best practices we can share with our customers and community of people leaders.

My first experiment: Listening tours

Data drives meaningful action; that’s why we developed Emplify Insights in the first place. Everything we do that impacts our team will be based upon and anchored by data. When it comes to strengthening employee engagement, we start with a confidential, scientifically-valid engagement survey. The Emplify survey and methodology are our foundation — the next steps that follow are where my team can get creative.

One of my first initiatives since taking on this new role has been to use deep listening to better understand pockets of disengagement in the company. I’ve been meeting with functional teams that scored lowest on the Emplify survey. This means the team is either disengaged or at risk of becoming disengaged. I’m calling these meetings the “Listening Tour.”

When disengagement happens it creates a wedge between leaders and team members. Without people feeling heard, that wedge continues to grow and can result in team dysfunction. Conversations that encourage earnest and respectful communication can unearth ideas and areas for improvement; those conversations also build the relationships that develop your culture.

Meeting with employees across different functions of our business has given me a macro view of each department’s dynamics and has been a crash course in what’s great about our culture. It’s also provided a deeper understanding of where we can put in more effort.

7 steps for a great listening tour

Employees and leaders have different vantage points in a company, so when there’s no regular meeting of those minds, distance can develop. A listening tour is a way of making sure you’re bridging those gaps and enabling real conversation between employees and leadership.

Here are my 7 steps to conducting a listening tour:

1. Gather a group of peers. Set up a 90-minute meeting with no more than a dozen people. A facilitator (in this case me) guides a conversation of peers — no managers if you’re talking with employees, and vice versa.

2. Create a safe space. Begin with an exercise to set the tone for the meeting and redirect participants from the busyness of their days. I often use poems (here’s an example of one I like) but you could as easily conduct a gratitude exercise (i.e., “What or who has been encouraging to you this week?”) or read an inspirational quote. The point is to unlock a different part of the brain and reframe the environment. You want to make sure everyone feels safe to be vulnerable and share their experiences. (You’ll do another gratitude exercise to close the meeting, thanking everyone for their contributions and taking time to reset again.)

3. Be a facilitator, not a fixer. Keep in mind throughout the session that you’re a listener here, not a fixer of problems. (I confess I have some growth to achieve here.) Resisting the urge to participate can be a struggle, but the process functions more effectively when you show up in a healthy, positive, and empathetic way. Your job is simply to listen and ensure that others feel heard.

4. Learn what engagement looks like. When it comes to understanding employee engagement, I try to figure out when work is at its best for the group and what that looks like. What elements of people’s jobs pull them away from doing their best work? I ask for specific examples of what’s going well as well as any challenges or blockers they may be encountering. Go in with a set of questions but let the conversation lead.

5. Document themes. Over the next few days, reflect on what you heard and identify themes to create an overview document to share back with the team. (This includes the group as a whole and will not call out any participants or their comments by name.) Ask them to provide feedback on whether or not your overview captures the sentiment of what was shared and/or if there’s anything you missed.

6. Align with the group leader. Once your documented themes are finalized and approved by the group, set some time to meet with that team’s leader. Together, you’ll review that document and discuss those themes. You’ll provide your recommendations based on what you heard, and together you’ll come up with an action plan and next steps.

7. Close the loop. Schedule a follow-up meeting with the group and their leader. Validate the outlined themes and have the group leader commit to the team that they will be taking action to make improvements for the team. People don’t expect their problems to be solved overnight, but they do need to know they were heard and there is a plan in place.

Change happens through small, deliberate actions

We talk to people leaders every day who get hung up on the idea that cultural change requires huge actions to make things better, but leaps in progress start with just giving employees a chance to be heard. What you learn enables you to take small but meaningful actions toward improvement. Through this process, I get alignment from teams, build recommendations for their leaders, and work alongside those leaders to create actions and close the loop with their teams.

Small steps; big impact — and it starts by simply listening.

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