As organisations evolve, we need to be listening. Listening in formal and informal ways. Listening for specific things and listening for the unexpected. Listening to people and listening through data-focused systems. Organisations and people evolve all the time - often in unexpected ways. So it’s important that we have ways of listening, of monitoring what’s happening, what’s changing, what’s shifting. With good listening systems, we get to see and take advantage of opportunities early and deal with dangers early, frequently when it’s easier and less costly to intervene. Many organisations have listening systems in place - and that’s a great start. The fact that you’re curious about your organisation and your people is a great start, no matter what method you’re using. Common methods include employee engagement and NPS (Net Promoter Score)-based approaches - and while these are better than nothing, there are simple improvements we can make.
Option 1: Monitor to understand or learn, not just measure to prove or fix. The first thing to do is ask yourself - why are you listening? There tend to be three reasons behind most organisational listening systems:
1. Listening to prove
2. Listening to improve or fix
3. Listening to understand or learn
For many organisations, the starting point is that they are listening to justify or prove the value of a particular programme or approach. Less listening, more measuring - and measuring to show and claim responsibility for an impact. Putting numbers on a preferred outcome (preferably with a link to a bottom-line financial benefit) is a solid way to maintain employability. The risks here are threefold. Firstly, we usually only end up looking for the positive effect - we limit our listening to a very narrow window of things happening, excluding most of what goes on in the organisation. Secondly, we start trying to put numbers on things that aren’t easily measured - like “how much of yourself have you brought to work today?”. Thirdly, we try to measure a direct outcome, reinforcing in minds across the organisation a linear, cause-and-effect, “pull-this-lever and-this-happens” pattern. And that pattern is, as we’ve talked about, dangerous in complex, evolving environments where we need to deal with issues through oblique approaches. Much the same applies when you are listening to fix - except you may be even more stuck in a linear mindset, looking for simple fixes to complex problems. And making work more human is one of the most complex of all - no simple fix, no single cause. This means we need to move beyond simple listening and measuring systems.
What you can do next
The good news is there’s an easy progression from this - instead of just listening to prove or fix. In the first stages, perhaps simply explore your own curiosity - or those whose views you value. What hypotheses or assumptions do they have about the organisation? Ask about those. And later, use open-ended questions to expand the range of what we can learn about what is going on in the organisation.
What does too much of a good thing look like? Next, we often look for confirming evidence around positive things like our values or our mission. Of course we want to see more Leadership or Customer-centricity or Innovation. So when we measure, we often ask questions about these things on a simple scale (for the technically inclined, a Likert scale): “On a scale of 1-10, how innovative are you/is your team?” or “On a scale of 1-10, how useful was the course?” These are really useful if we’re introducing something new that’s not been seen before, but at this stage in the evolution of organisational life, most people are familiar with these questions and, more importantly, they know what the desired answer is. There are two risks here worth mentioning - one verging on the philosophical, one practical. The first is that we look at the list of organisational values as universally positive - there is no ceiling to how much more trust we would like. And that’s not true - too much of a good thing is a bad thing. What does too much trust look like? We’re usually so busy trying to increase it, we never stop to explore whether we’ve got too much. The second, more practical issue is that people can easily see what answer you want to get when you ask them the question. When we can see what someone wants to hear, we generally give them the feedback we want (unless we’re feeling mischievous or aggrieved, in which case we veer in the opposite direction.) We know this ourselves as customers all too well - so many of our interactions with a business get a follow-up email or SMS message “On a scale of 1-10, how likely are you to recommend this company to a friend or family member?” or “Rate your stay in this venue on TripIt.” It usually takes something significantly wrong for us to rate that hotel as less than a four star experience. The same applies in our organisations when we ask questions - people will often give us the answer they think we want regardless of what they actually feel.
What you can do next
We don’t need to abandon the practice of using values in our listening systems - but we can easily get cleverer. Rather than a simple scale of bad-to-good for the values, we can instead change the scale to Not-enough-to-Too-much. It means that the midpoint is our desired “just right” outcome - but people have both more inclination and more scope to give us a more reflective answer based on their perceptions. We open up the listening to a greater range of human responses. As an aside, we often find that, in parts of the organisation, there is already a belief that we have too much of our corporate value - which gives us valuable information about where we might be meeting resistance and why.
Look at what shapes things, not the things themselves. All of the options so far look at how we listen, monitor or measure for what we want or about which we are curious. In Option 1, we mentioned that for the complex, evolving systems that our organisations are, we need to take oblique approaches. This option builds further on that approach - far more useful in making work more human, recognising people in the organisational systems that we build. Every situation is shaped by factors that restrict or enhance - practices or beliefs that make an outcome more difficult to achieve, or behaviours or systems that make it easier. If we’re really interested in listening to learn, instead of measuring the outcome, we can listen to these aspects of the work. In many ways, these are more helpful in working out what to actually do to improve the situation - an employee engagement score that drops 5% doesn’t give you any indication of how to respond, but frustration with unclear targets does.
What you can do next
We may have suspicions about what gets in people’s way in getting their work done, but we can never see the whole system from where we sit. To get a clearer idea - and to give people in difficult working environments a clearer and more authentic voice, we can explore with people from diverse situations you’re looking at what makes their work-life easier and more difficult. If we gather from across the organisation at different levels, we can then look for common factors - perhaps bureaucracy or lack of clarity or motivation issues hold us back, while encouraging managers, regular coordination meetings and older colleagues move us forward. Once we have a sense of these, we can ask questions about how present they are in the work people are doing - giving us more practical information on what shapes people’s perceptions of work. (And with all of these things, remember Option 2: look for when too much of an older colleague becomes an irritant rather than a help.)
Embrace the human - subjectivity in, sense-making out Most measurement systems in the organisation are objective, giving us hard data about things that are happening: “we shipped X products last week” or “our margins have increased by Y%”. Systems that listen to human beings sometimes strive for that by measuring objective things: time on calls, attendance, utilisation rates, etc. The problem with these is that they tend to make work less human and more robotic. Few of us respond well to being treated as a work-producing cog whose outputs can be measured and optimised. We recognise that our employee engagement and other listening tools are subjective - they have to be, based on the principle that what people perceive shapes how they respond, regardless of whether or not it’s objectively true. The same approach - involving fabulously subjective people in the process - is a great next step when we look at the data as well. Data in a complex environment never gives us clear answers - it needs people to make sense of it. In particular it needs people with a 10,000 foot view of the overall picture and people with specific knowledge of the working context - experts in the overall subject matter and experts in day-to-day experience. When we gather information from across the organisation but then centralise the decision making about what the next actions are, people often see this as a top-down exercise that only pays lip service to the idea of recognising people. Devolving this power to people away from the centre gives us great opportunities to see and act in new ways, including signalling that our intent really is to make work more human.
What you can do next
Rather than announcing the latest survey results, we can instead run workshops with people from across the organisation, using the information from our listening systems to fuel discussions that produce insights and actions. Sense-making workshops give people a chance to see initial data patterns, but then give their views of what it actually means - and what needs to happen as a result of it. There are two big benefits to this approach. First is that the quality of insight and understanding is far higher - giving us a much better picture of what the work looks like to our fellow humans. And flowing from that, our colleagues in the workplace are much better placed to co-create and co-design interventions to improve things. (As an aside, it is not unusual to find that locally sourced suggestions are both lower cost and more likely to be sustained than programmes designed solely top-down.) The second benefit is involving people in exploring what comes out sends a clear signal to people that this information is used participatively - questions and surveys and discussion groups are not just an extracting-information process but one that is genuinely about listening, working together and taking action in ways that recognise everyone’s viewpoint and knowledge. This also means that the next time you ask questions, you’re more likely to get people continuing to respond because they know the end result of the process respects and benefits them.
Looking for what we don’t know to ask All of the possibilities we’ve talked about so far rely, to a greater or lesser degree, on asking questions - it is, after all, our standard way of learning about situations. These are great and yet limited. In complex, evolving organisations, there are always things that we don’t know to even ask about. If we truly want to listen as best we can to people’s experience of working in our organisation, we need to listen beyond the questions we know to ask. One way we do this is by listening to people’s stories, examples and experiences of what work looks and feels like to them - and then asking about what was happening in that experience that was important, what doesn’t get recognised enough or what only they (the person sharing the story) can see. Stories are among the most human ways we share ourselves with others - they illuminate corners of our lives that others don’t see, they teach and share knowledge in intuitive, helpful ways and they nudge us back into reflecting on reality rather than just opinion. We can name things in a story that we can’t recall in response to a question.
What you can do next
Gathering people’s experiences in response to an open-ended prompt like “What frustrated you this week? Or encouraged you? What happened?” can open up the door to revealing deep truths in our organisation. Allowing our curiosity and the other person’s experience to highlight what was important increases the chances we’ll see something unexpected. And we can do this in many ways - in small organisations or big, hanging out by the coffee machine is always illuminating as people share experiences as they wait. Gathering small groups together to talk will almost always descend into competitive storytelling (and this can be encouraged by using techniques like “Anecdote Circles” to gather specific kinds of experiences.) At large scales, there are narrative research tools (like SenseMaker) that help us gather hundreds or even thousands of experiences from people across an organisation.
Listening to our organisation can be a complex thing - with multiple ways of doing it that need to fit our organisation, not some idealistic recipe. Just listening is the first step - and then depending on what our appetite and capability is for more, we have options.
The three things that are most important to remember are these:
1. In evolving systems, we need to keep listening, scanning, monitoring to spot early signs of change that we might want to build on or reduce.
2. People respond to subjective perceptions, so subjective data and subjective sense-making helps us in shifting our organisations to being more people-friendly.
3. Complex systems are never completely knowable - there will never be enough data about everything to be sure. So we lean into our human-ness to act without being sure, rather than waiting for a calculated answer that can never be right, in time or final.