Why employee listening has to be more than a grand gesture

Lee Smith

30 May 2023
Employee Experience
Employee Voice
I was interested to read a recent post from Michael Kissman about an internal initiative at the UK retailer M&S called ‘Straight to Stuart’. It’s an open-to-all employee suggestion scheme which sees CEO Stuart Machin personally review every single idea that gets submitted. With more than 10,000 ideas generated so far, he must be a very busy man indeed!

I wouldn’t question for a moment the intent of this. M&S should be applauded for making such a bold commitment, as should Stuart himself - having been on the job for just 12 months, I’m sure his inbox was already overflowing before Straight to Stuart launched.

Connecting senior leaders with employees

From my perspective anything that helps connect senior leaders with frontline employees has to be celebrated, as far too many executive teams remain distant and disconnected from day-to-day organisational reality.  

The proof is in the pudding and apparently the initiative is already having a very positive impact with lots of great ideas coming through and being implemented, no doubt helping reinvigorate the business. 

And that’s no surprise. 
Employees are ingenious and creative and when you ask them for ideas - and provide a mechanism for sharing them easily - they usually deliver in spades.
But there’s always a slight danger this sort of ‘grand gesture’ initiative could eclipse other forms of employee listening.

The logic is sound of course. It’s not the ivory tower leaders who know what’s working and what’s broken, what’s missing and what customers want, it’s the legions of ordinary employees who grapple with the day-to-day reality of working life.

So finding a way for employees at all levels to share their ideas, challenge decisions and ask questions is vitally important whatever the nature of your business.

How do you enable this?

There are a myriad ways to do this though and the answer lies not in any one of them, but in finding the right combination and, more than that, in baking listening into your organisational culture.
Here are just a few of the dozens of tactics you can deploy as part of a wider listening strategy:
  • Surveys
  • Focus groups
  • Employee forums
  • Line manager conversations
  • Onboarding and exit interviews
  • CEO ‘back to the floor’ initiatives
  • Chatbots
  • Big events
  • Brown bag lunches
  • Champion networks
  • Whistle blowing
  • Shadow boards
  • Advisory groups
  • Suggestion schemes
But, effective as each and every one of these tactics can be, organisational listening has to be more than just a bunch of tactics, or a single grand gesture. It has to be ingrained into your culture.

At its heart, the genuine listening organisation is built around a conversation culture where rich, open, multi-way dialogue is the norm.

It’s inherently human.

A culture of conversation

People talk to each other - up and down the hierarchy and across functional boundaries.
Managers and senior leaders talk to their teams every single day, listening, acknowledging, reflecting and responding.

Ideas are constantly captured and shared, communication is free-flowing and action visibly flows from it.

Such organisations are characterised by high levels of trust and, inevitably, have a strong commitment to face-to-face communication.

We also know that being listened to and being heard, being able to contribute and make a difference, having a good relationship with your line manager and trusting senior leaders are all vital elements of everyday employee experience (EX).

Big initiatives are a great way to kick-start or re-energise organisational listening and there’s nothing wrong with that, but ultimately it has to be something that happens at all levels, something holistic, something cultural, something that is baked into every aspect of organisational life.

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