The employee opinion or engagement survey has been around for years as one of businesses’ primary listening tools. But just how useful are these surveys as a listening tool?
At Rambutan, we believe passionately in ‘listening until your ears hurt’. Employee opinion or engagement surveys are a great starting point in the listening process – but it shouldn’t end there and they shouldn’t be the only listening exercises undertaken. They’re just a snapshot in time and doing one doesn’t necessarily mean you’re listening to the right people or that you’re being told what’s really going on.
In most organisations, the people with the loudest voices (and most open communication style) will quite happily tell you what they think and they are often the people who will complete the employee survey, write copious open comments and volunteer for any post-survey focus groups. This is all fine and dandy, but these are not necessarily the people we want to hear from. There’s a significant proportion of employees in all organisations who we like to call ‘silent but friendly’. They’re generally your biggest allies, with a positive attitude to what you’re trying to achieve. The one problem with this large group of employees is that they have a very closed communication style, so getting them to talk is tricky. At a recent workshop I facilitated about leading change, one delegate summed up this type of person; “They can be so frustrating. You ask them how they are and they just say, ‘great’. You ask them what ideas they have and they say, ‘none really.’ You ask them to get involved and they say, ‘no thanks’.”
This group of ‘silent but friendly’ people also have an opposing and more dangerous (albeit smaller) group of employees in the workplace. We like to label these disruptive folk ‘silent assassins’. Again, they have a very closed communication style, so it’s difficult to get them to talk (at least in public), but unlike the ‘silent but friendly’ crowd, they come with a very negative and disruptive attitude. They’re the type that spread rumours and discourse behind the scenes, and whisper behind your back. And just like the ‘silent but friendlies’, they probably won’t automatically volunteer to attend focus groups. They might, however, occasionally fill in your survey but only in a deliberately negative way, just to make a point. These silent assassins still need to be listened to though, to gain a handle on the rumours that are in the workplace and also to really understand the root cause of their dissatisfaction and where their negativity is coming from.
Professor Stephen Hawking once said, “Quiet people have the loudest minds”. So how do we get these quiet people talking, so that we can listen to what they’re thinking or feeling? The answer is a tricky one.
One-to-one or in small groups is always going to be best with the silent types. Getting them to open up means they need to trust the listener and that what they say can remain confidential. Here’s where external people can play a really valuable role. People are much more likely to open up to a third party who they trust and who guarantees anonymity. Experienced employee engagement consultants also know what questions to ask to tease out issues, root causes and interpret what’s being said (and, importantly, what’s not being said).
Another solution is to consider those post-survey focus groups or action planning workshops. More often than not we choose the vocal types (with both positive and negative views), which means sometimes just the loudest voices are getting heard. Don’t ever stop these vocal people attending as their ideas and views are really valuable. Instead, add on some more groups but ensure attendance from your ‘silent’ crowd. Keep the focus groups small and make sure there aren’t any ‘loud voices’ here who might intimidate or drown out the silent ones. Again, try using external people to run the sessions to maintain anonymity and allow people the space to open up.
Our third solution is to leverage the people in your organisation that the quiet ones trust; their immediate line manager, team leader, supervisor or peers within their team. Leveraging these people as a listening tool is a big undertaking but will ultimately yield great insight. You’ll need to brief these ‘junior’ managers properly, possibly provide some skills training in active listening, asking great questions and not being defensive and you’ll also need to put in a process for them to feedback what they’ve heard. This option may also take a little time, as again, they may have to ‘cover off’ their people in one-to-one conversations. Their brief would be a simple one; just go out and listen. What are your people talking about right now? What are they happy or unhappy about? What’s keeping them awake at night? What are they worried about? And just as important, what are they excited about?
So next time you’re undertaking a listening ‘exercise’ such as an employee opinion or engagement survey, think carefully about who you’re asking and whether you’re really tapping into the busy minds of the quiet ones. Bear in mind too, that listening isn’t an exercise, it’s a mindset. If you truly want to see the world through your people’s eyes, you need to listen all the time, not just when it’s time for the annual survey.