listening strategy hero

Culture Renovation Blueprint Action #1: Develop and Deploy a Comprehensive Listening Strategy

Before an organization embarks on a culture renovation, there’s a very basic first step: it needs to first understand how the current culture is perceived.  Despite this “mastery of the obvious” insight, it’s amazing how many companies skip this. There’s one primary reason: too often the senior team assumes they know what the culture they have today represents.  Too often, they are dead wrong.

In our research, two-thirds of organizations that successfully changed their culture first gathered sentiment and related data from the workforce to understand how employees viewed the existing culture. This has taken on new importance during the pandemic, particularly with so many employees working remotely and experiencing a work-life blend like never before. Corporate culture has unexpectedly changed this past year, like it or not, and it’s important to understand how.

Progressive companies are taking an active listening approach. Active listening is more widespread today than at any point in history and growing in popularity.  Outside of the pandemic-related issues of vaccinations and possible return-to-office, there are several concerns tugging at employees’ psyche. Ongoing political rhetoric and divisiveness, continuing unease around racial discrimination and pay equity, and the need for inclusive and psychologically safe workplaces all are contributing to a challenging work environment.  Listening to the workforce can help uncover attitudes and issues bubbling under the surface and provide early warning signals before issues become explosive and drastically affect your culture…and even shareholder value.

Would Boeing have uncovered issues with the 737 MAX earlier had it had a culture of listening?  Or Wells Fargo before it was eventually fined billions over setting up fake accounts?

Of course, listening isn’t just about risk prevention.  It’s about developing a true understanding of employee sentiment and the culture in which employees work every day.  And it’s not that hard.  More than ever, employees aren’t shy about expressing their opinions.  Like it or not, there are tens of millions of comments about employee experiences on Glassdoor, Indeed, Comparably, and other sites or apps, which is the first place most job candidates turn to gain insight on a company’s culture.  These platforms and tools provide employees a bullhorn to broadcast their opinions in seconds.

The concept of employee listening has been greatly aided recently through technology.  Natural language processing (NLP), coupled with machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI), is giving employees a way to share their views in their own voice, rather than through Likert scale questionnaires that simply reflect a level of agreement with statements pre-ordained by someone else.  While those types of surveys usually have space for freeform comments, it’s laborious to manually read thousands of survey comments and “bucket” those comments in broad general categories like “communication” or “leadership.”  Instead, NLP categorizes sentiment in more accurate categories to allow management to see true patterns and identify emerging issues.  NLP research enables organizations to gauge employee sentiment in real-time to capture how employees feel about current events and activities—a marked contrast to the traditional annual employee engagement survey and a far more accurate method to assess culture.

Think about any opinion or sentiment survey you’ve ever taken.  Did you ever think that your answers were based on your current mood or influenced by a recent event?  Most “point in time” surveys suffer from this. Ongoing, frequent surveys weed this out, and eliminate “false positives” that can occur in companies around a current hot issue that dissipates a few days later.  Effective NLP can provide true ongoing sentiment, not the “issue-du-jour” that infects the typical annual survey.

Despite the superiority of NLP in identifying employee sentiment, annual employee engagement surveys remain popular.  Companies spend hundreds of millions on these surveys annually. Our research shows that 89 percent of organizations reported they used their all-employee engagement survey as a mechanism to measure and/or monitor their organizational culture.  But the research also showed no statistical relationship between using the employee engagement survey for this purpose and the firm’s ability to achieve a healthy culture.

From the organizations i4cp has talked with, it’s very clear that over the last few years that many have abandoned the annual engagement survey for a variety of reasons: it’s too slow, cumbersome, expensive, and not actionable enough.  When it comes to changing culture, fewer organizations are relying on this traditional tool to accurately gauge employee sentiment because they realize business now moves too fast for it to provide accurate data.  Instead, they are moving to more frequent, rapid, easier methods to gather sentiment, and to analyze it more efficiently and effectively to act more quickly.

Some companies are even using daily questions to gauge employee sentiment.  Amazon, for example, asks their employees one question a day before they log in to the network.  The question is often carefully constructed to elicit discussion and healthy debate in the workforce.

One question Amazon has asked in the past, according to an employee: “Is your manager a simplifier, or a complexifier?”  This fantastic question immediately makes all managers question their style.  It is a good example of how to leverage pulse questions strategically. Whether you are about to embark on a renovation of your culture, or if you just want to better understand what’s happening with the workforce, adopt a modern approach to employee listening. You’ll probably be surprised by what you hear.

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Kevin Oakes
Kevin is the CEO and co-founder of i4cp. He is a world-recognized thought leader on the topics of corporate culture, the future of work, and learning, and is the author of the bestselling book Culture Renovation: 18 Leadership Actions to Build an Unshakeable Company.