Employee Listening Strategy: Essential to Successful Employee Feedback

The employee listening strategy is a plan to capture and understand your employees’ concerns and needs and learn their ideas to improve the workplace. It incorporates in-person and digital communications throughout the employee lifecycle, giving HR and organizational leaders a better understanding of the employee experience. As an employee feedback system, it delivers insights that can strengthen a positive culture, enhance change management, prevent union organizing, and improve collaboration and productivity. The challenge is developing an employee listening strategy that engages employees regularly in a meaningful way while supporting the organization’s mission and goals. You want to avoid “feedback fatigue” when the goal is to increase employee engagement.  

Is Your Employee Feedback System a “Feed To” System?

“My manager said he is going to give me some feedback at our meeting this afternoon. There must be something wrong.” Such a simple statement but loaded with negative connotations. Why would the employee automatically assume the feedback is negative? Tamra Chandler explains on a ProjectHR podcast that negative connotations can quickly develop when a manager or supervisor only gives feedback when something has gone wrong and seldom asks for employee feedback when things are going smoothly. No wonder that even today, employees fear performance reviews. They are conditioned to receive negative feedback. 

Notice what is missing? Are your leaders really listening or think they are listening? If they aren’t really listening, your organizational leaders are missing out on learning employee concerns, needs, and new ideas. Poor leadership listening behaviors stifle employee voice and innovation and can quickly lead to disengaged employees who are more susceptible to labor unions. The “employee feedback” system that is primarily a one-way process in which a leader shares organizational concerns and needs and gives employees short shrift as to what really matters to them could be called a “Feed To” system. The manager or supervisor feeds information to the employee periodically and doesn’t make a sincere effort to uncover employee concerns. 

Even though multiple surveys have demonstrated the importance of employee voice, a major complaint of employees talking to labor unions is that they need more voice or say about their work. They don’t feel empowered because they are not involved or participating in internal communication in a meaningful way. 

employee listening strategy

Begin with a Perspective of Inclusion 

Before discussing the elements of the employee listening strategy, it’s necessary to understand that psychological factors are involved. You can establish a well-designed employee listening strategy that covers the entire employee lifecycle from recruitment to exit, but if people are uncomfortable being authentic or don’t feel safe expressing their concerns or needs, the listening system is ineffective. Some of the psychological elements include the following. 

  • Inclusive culture – The organizational culture must be genuinely inclusive and create a sense of belonging so employees feel psychologically safe expressing their voices.
  • Build trust in the communication process – Your employees must trust that their communications in the communication system – in-person and digital communications – will reach the right people and generate responses. For example, if people think completing employee surveys are a waste of time, or they never get a response when using an employee app, or fear retaliation for being honest, they will not utilize these opportunities to channel their opinions, concerns, attitudes, perspectives, or needs.
  • Train your leaders in unconscious bias  - Unconscious bias is difficult to change because it’s ingrained in someone’s way of thinking. Leaders who listen to employees through any communication channel should not filter the information through the lens of bias. It will distort the interpretation of the message and produce the wrong response. 
  • Think continuous communication – The employee feedback system should be a continuous system and not a random or periodic one. Continuous means your employees always have access to varied communication channels that enable employee feedback when employees have something they consider important enough to share and enable employees and leaders to hold conversations in person or through virtual channels. The communication channels should make sense for the particular employees to use.
  • Utilize communication to gain insights and show leadership empathy – Your leaders need emotional intelligence, and their communication with employees should show emotional intelligence.   

Developing an Employee Listening Strategy

Your leaders can meet three primary goals by developing an employee listening strategy. One is ensuring the inclusion of all employees – onsite, remote, deskless, and field workers. The second is establishing a successful employee feedback system that enables two-way dialogue between employees and management. It’s highly frustrating for employees when they feel like they are cut off from decision-makers and aren’t allowed to express their concerns when they need addressing and must wait until it’s convenient for a manager to have a meeting. The third goal is gaining employee insights leading to: 

  • More positive employee relations
  • Early identification of brewing issues that could promote union organizing
  • Less conflict in the workforce and between employees and management
  • Potential streamlining of job duties
  • A better understanding of the labor market through the recruitment process
  • A better understanding of best practices in employee retention
  • Timely leadership responses to employee needs and concerns
  • Access to important information that employees can share, like about workflows or innovations

The employee listening strategy is focused on an end-to-end communication system that is in a continuous loop. 

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Suggestions to Improve the Employee Feedback System

The talent management platform isolved conducted a survey of 1,000 employees across industries and the country and found that continuous listening by employers is important to employees in today’s age of turbulence. Two other survey findings also found that employees value consistent learning opportunities and frequent check-ins with their managers or supervisors. These three communication approaches can ease the stress and anxiety many workers experience today. 

An effective employee listening system is designed with a combination of technology-based communication and personal communication. Even if some employees are never onsite, your leaders can hold one-on-one meetings using a meeting software program. 

Employee surveys should not be rigid, with the same questions repeatedly asked. You’ll lose the attention of employees. For example, you can do different pulse surveys with a question or two that address a current issue. The employee engagement survey can remain relevant by changing the questions to reflect organizational changes or concerns. The types of employee surveys include:

  • Employee engagement
  • Inclusion and belonging survey
  • Benefits survey
  • Wellness survey
  • Development survey
  • Team effectiveness survey
  • Management effectiveness survey
  • Onboarding survey
  • Exit survey
  • Job candidate survey
  • Check-ins

Meetings should be face-to-face as much as possible, but today, not all workforce structures support in-person meetings. However, technology enables virtual face-to-face meetings like Zoom meetings, facetime meetings on work smartphones, and online chat sessions.  

Your organization needs a method for collecting and analyzing data that flows from multiple communication channels. If the data indicates employee engagement is declining, take thoughtful action. You can do another survey with specific questions about declining engagement areas or have team meetings. The data should identify the engagement drivers you can focus on. Track the data results over time to determine if your organization’s actions are successfully improving employee engagement

You can implement actions in response to employee feedback in one function or department before going organization-wide. Determine if the leadership response is working over time. If it is, then implement the changes organization-wide. 

Follow-up on employee feedback is absolutely critical. Even if a manager or supervisor can’t accommodate an employee’s request, it’s essential to respond and take targeted action where possible. The response should also be timely. If there’s a long period between an insight gained and action, employees will lose trust in the employee feedback system. No one likes to express their ideas, concerns, or needs and hear crickets afterward. 

Ensure the employee listening strategy recognizes employees’ mental and physical health. 

Your managers and leaders should hold regular meetings with their teams and weekly meetings with new hires for the first 60 days. New hires bring fresh perspectives, but you also establish the communication culture upfront. Encouraging honesty and transparency in the new hire experience will support future authentic communication.  

Connect the employee listening strategy to the organization’s mission, goals, and objectives. For example, if your company is focused on being customer-centric, the communication tools will be designed to measure employee engagement and how engagement levels relate to customer service. In this example, the employee feedback system is implemented organization-wide, not piecemeal.  

The employee listening strategy will also define the ongoing governance of the employee feedback system. 

employee feedback system

Moving to Continuous Employee Listening 

Korn Ferry points out that more frequent employee feedback has potential pitfalls that include feedback fatigue, disillusionment when feedback does not lead to concrete actions, and the risk of overreactions that are mistaken for long-term trends when they are temporary. The implication is that conducting more frequent surveys doesn’t automatically equate to higher employee engagement. The employee listening strategy must have a well-defined purpose, coordinated governance, and an accompanying strategy for effective responses. 

IRI Consultants can help your decision-makers develop an employee listening strategy that best fits your organizational structure, workforce structure, mission, and goals. 

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