Active Listening as Organization: Taking the Employee Voice to Heart

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We often talk about the importance of listening to your employees. However, for something we’ve been taught since kindergarten, listening is a skill that requires quite a bit of practice and intention. For example, while in a conversation have you ever found yourself forming a response while the other person was talking, only to realize that you missed their last few points?  You’re not alone. In fact, research says that people remember 25-50% of what they hear. Yikes.

Active listening is a technique used to close this gap between what we hear and what we retain. According to Mind Tools, with active listening you “make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent.”

Active listening is hard enough on an individual level, so how do you apply this concept on an organizational level? Here are some tips to help you do just that.

Listen to understand, rather than to respond

The all-too-common conversation example I shared at the beginning of this article is a perfect example of listening to respond rather than listening to understand. Listening to respond is listening to say you listened. Listening to check it off your list and tell people you did it. Listening to understand is listening with empathy, listening to learn, and then taking those learnings to heart.

When you are so focused on responding, you often miss what is actually being said. Additionally, you run the risk of your response seeming defensive, rather than genuine. Of course, responding is necessary (in fact, we often say that there’s no such thing as survey fatigue, only inaction fatigue), but in order to respond effectively, you first have to understand what you’re responding to.

Collect feedback.

I know. Here we are talking about feedback again. But it is so important!

Surveys are the easiest way to collect feedback and listen on an organizational level. Creating a regular survey cadence for your employees provides a predictable, consistent outlet for their thoughts and suggestions, so that negatives don’t boil up into a different problem altogether. And you can always send ad-hoc surveys for anything that comes up in between your regular schedule. Further, for those who like to speak in numbers rather than emotions, the results that surveys provide help you do that.

Of course, surveys aren’t as personal as having one-on-one conversations with every employee, but seeing the data accumulated often communicates a clearer story than if you were to link thousands of conversations together. In this way, it helps you listen more effectively on a larger scale.

Process & respond to feedback.

In a one-on-one conversation, you know that someone is listening when they loop back and summarize your points. This is called processing, and according to Christine M. Riordan in her HBR article, processing is a key set of behaviors for listening with empathy.  

Another critical set of behaviors is responding. Riordan defines responding as “assuring others that listening has occurred and encouraging communication to continue.” I especially like this definition, because it shows that responding is just as much about acknowledging the situation as it is about posing solutions. While it’s important to be solution-oriented, you also want employees to see that you’re working with the same set of assumptions when driving towards resolution.

To apply processing and responding on an organizational level, share your survey feedback to demonstrate what you’ve learned as a leadership team. Don’t feel pressure to promise a resolution for everything at once, because that would be unrealistic. Instead, phrase your response as, “this is what we’ve learned from everyone” or “based on our learnings, here are some things are going to focus on” and provide an outlet for continuing the conversation — through focus groups, a go-to contact, or additional surveys .

Look around.

When conversing with someone, you pick up on their body language, their expressions, and everything else that fills the space between the spoken words. These nonverbal cues are often the difference between interpreting something as sarcastic or sincere, or as a lie or the truth.

On an organizational level, there are nonverbal cues for how employees feel about your culture everywhere you look. When sending a survey, take note of the response rate and any skipped questions. During a meeting, look at how people are sitting. Did people arrive on time for your all-hands? How are employees using your common spaces? Are people participating in your team activities? The list goes on.

These nonverbal cues fill in the gaps between what is said and what is actually happening to help you paint a more complete picture of what’s going on in your organization. (To read more about that process, check out our eGuide Making the Business Case for Company Culture).


Active listening as an organization is a process, not a project. If you’re not skilled at it yet, that’s okay, because just like culture agility, learning and iterating is all part of the process.

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