Are You Listening?
It’s one thing when you choose to do your job at the kitchen table; It’s another to be stuck there without an alternative. By choice, the kitchen seems cozy. When it’s the only space available—not so much. I make that distinction because remote work shouldn’t take all the fall for the perfectly understandable cultural stress occurring in many organizations. Now more than ever, the need for listening comes to the fore.
If you are a leader who understands the connection between a positive culture and success, you’re probably communicating with your staff with greater frequency and intention than ever. And, undoubtedly, you’re listening more often than talking.
Like other invisible skills, listening is one of those critical qualities that gains traction when disruption makes it imperative. Most groups have activities in place to listen to the voice of their customers, but how many association leaders regularly listen to the voice of their organizations? How often do our communications transcend speaking and engage constituents in a dialogue?
My consulting work provides numerous examples of the benefits of listening beyond the individuals who make themselves heard. Willingness to explore how employees and volunteers assess their ability to perform effectively—where they find opportunity or encounter barriers—is an invaluable asset to leadership.
.orgSource is frequently engaged to guide associations through business transformations. These activities involve significant shifts in operations, administration, and culture. One of our most powerful tools is a Transformation Readiness Assessment. The assessment is a deep listening device. It digs into the nooks and crannies of an organization by soliciting feedback from employees about the association’s strength across these nine domains of activity:
Although the results are not always as rosy as we would like, an objective evaluation puts everyone on the same page. This information is an X-ray view of the organization. It helps us see where we can expect smooth sailing, where to prepare for roadblocks, and how critical the need for change might be.
Organizational listening builds this type of feedback and assessment into ongoing operations. It makes hearing the collective and individual opinions of employees, volunteers, and members a priority in overall strategy.
I think in this triad of constituents, employees tend to get short shrift. Yes, we all conduct performance reviews. But those sessions can be fraught with emotions, both positive and negative, and are not designed to be a forum for listening. Some organizations administer annual engagement surveys, and that’s a good start. But associations can find resilience, growth, and a hedge against disruption by developing a culture of listening.
Good listening is the foundation for a productive work environment. Your sincere attention makes a greater impact than any other form of recognition—even cash. Listening positions associations for success by:
- Creating the trust and respect needed for transparent dialogue
- Helping leaders and managers quickly identify areas for improvement
- Stimulating innovation by encouraging ideas
- Strengthening commitment and collaboration
- Reducing conflict
- Promoting tolerance for individual differences
- Creating a welcoming work environment
The following strategies can improve your organization’s listening capacity:
Open the Dialogue
Begin by setting the example. Explore your association’s listening proficiency with your management team. Present the case for improving this skill; then, demonstrate commitment to the concept by actively listening to the dialogue and adjusting your expectations based on that feedback.
If you encounter a lack of enthusiasm, you will need to probe more deeply to discover the root of the resistance. Groups that are not accustomed to candid conversations may require more time to achieve buy-in for an expanded listening initiative.
Ask to Understand
Surveys are an easy way to discover what’s going on in your organization. But the annual employee engagement questionnaire won’t take you where you need to go. More real-time information is needed, especially when people are working under stressful conditions.
A series of pulse surveys composed of six questions, or fewer, and delivered at regular intervals, help leaders stay connected to their teams and address acute needs. Center questions around organizational support and resources, workflow, personal well-being, and the team’s ability to collaborate with each other and employees across the organization. Following the survey, workgroups should discuss the results and determine where to focus attention in the coming weeks. After each pulse, identify what has changed in the interim. Results can be shared across departments and aggregated for the entire staff.
Who doesn’t like to be asked for their opinion? Polls are a quick and easy way of gauging the immediate reaction of employees and board members on a variety of topics and engaging individuals across the organization. Polls can also be fun and provide an opportunity for humor. Take advantage of these simple snapshots in time to make an impact.
Questionnaires that probe more deeply into operations and culture can be conducted on an annual or semi-annual basis. The goal of this research is to gather honest information about how employees perceive their experience at your association. Questions can center around work/life balance, trust in leadership, culture, and should also include topics related to the nine domains of activity we explore in the .orgSource Transformation Assessment.
Listening initiatives should never be a one-way street. Credibility depends on addressing the issues under your control and acknowledging what it is not possible to change and why. If significant challenges are identified, consider creating cross-departmental teams to find solutions. When they are successful, publicly recognize that contribution.
Open Your Door
Nothing says I’m listening like a closed office door. Sorry for that bit of sarcasm, but I’m pretty sure that there’s more than one executive director whose sighting is as rare as the giant panda. If you are burrowing into your office, building a culture of listening will be challenging, if not impossible. You are only a leader in name if you are isolated. Remove barriers that are preventing you from doing the most important part of your job—understanding the status of activities across the organization.
Open the door and let the fresh ideas in. Invite staff to make short appointments with you to talk, no agenda required. While remote work makes a walk around the office impossible, try short Zoom check-ins with employees or teams. These calls shouldn’t be all about your agenda or business. When people feel comfortable talking with you as a person, they will be more open to sharing meaningful opinions about work.
Provide Training and Tools
We don’t become better listeners just because we want to. Listening takes practice and training. To build a listening culture, make resources available to staff, board members, and volunteers. Invest in technological support. Data analytics, dashboards, member and employee forums, surveys, polling, and audience response software are all tools for listening. By devoting time and budget to this initiative, you will demonstrate its status as a priority.
You can’t be a dispassionate listener. No matter how you are listening or who you are listening to, empathy is what makes people feel heard. Empathy doesn’t require you to agree, only to approach the conversation with a sincere desire for understanding. This openness and connection should be present in all the organization’s listening activities.
Make a Lasting Impact
Listening is evergreen. It isn’t a system or a device that must be replaced or updated. It is a skill that’s always in demand, on-trend, and good for business. But most of all, listening supports people. And in this hour when so many of us are tired of our literal or metaphorical kitchen tables, an attentive ear makes an impact.
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