July 9, 2020

Listening Is Essential Work, Whether There’s a Crisis or Not


The common thread in both the COVID-19 pandemic and the racial unrest sweeping America is that both crises happened because leaders failed to do one thing: listen.

With coronavirus, the failure was immediate, hobbling what should have been an effective early response. In the case of the racial-justice protests, the failure to listen compounded over decades of police abuses, and the dam of national outrage finally broke following the murder of George Floyd in May.

Amid the anguish and loss brought on by these cataclysmic events, many are striving to learn how to avoid repeating them. The most important way to do that, we feel, is to learn how to listen. It’s a lesson that all organizations must take to heart, both during a crisis and before one even starts.

“Listening is the front end of decision-making,” writes Bernard T. Ferrari, dean emeritus of Johns Hopkins University’s Carey Business School, in Power Listening: Mastering the Most Critical Business Skill of All. “It’s the surest, most effective route to informing the judgments you will need to make.”

In times like these, listening is critical for business survival. With that in mind, here are three ways to listen well and act on what you hear:

1. Understand Your Own Biases

In these months of turmoil, many organizations are taking a hard and necessary look at institutional biases, from those against Black employees to prejudices around remote workers and hourly employees. These companies are also rethinking the policies and attitudes that have reinforced these biases over the years.

If you don’t understand the unspoken biases clouding judgement in your organization (and in yourself), you won’t be able to fully process what your workforce tells you or take proper actions based on what they say. Social psychologist Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt and consultant Mary Frances Winters have written incisive books that help people get to the heart of hidden biases and open up about them at work. These books are a great place to start when it comes to understanding your own biases.

2. Encourage More Listening and Less Talk From Leadership

It’s here where you stand to gain the most. Organizations with truly strong cultures allow workers to speak their minds without fear of reprisal. They truly hear what employees are saying, and they support workers’ ideas and actions for making things better.

Listening is a critical leadership skill. If you can’t or won’t hear the right information, you won’t be able to take the right actions to remedy problems. You won’t know what problems or opportunities your front-line teams are seeing. You won’t be able to detect a crisis in the works and mitigate it. You can’t make a good plan to deal with change, because you won’t know how your organization will respond to it. You won’t inspire trust and loyalty among employees if they know you’re ignoring them.

When it comes to listening, saying you have an “open-door policy” (which assumes a level of trust you may not yet have) or creating a discussion group here and there (which may leave many issues unsaid) aren’t nearly as effective as conducting a survey that ensures strong anonymity protections.

Most importantly, you must take action on whatever feedback you get. That is the only way to prove to your team you’ve actually listened well. One way CultureIQ has found to make actions truly effective and further emphasize the value of employee voice is for leaders to find the employees in all parts of their workforces who are most open to changes. Let these early adopters suggest how best to make changes happen in their teams. By doing this, you not only show employees you can listen, but you also build a culture of trust between leaders and employees, which in turn will encourage even more open and honest feedback.

3. Show Your Employees You’ve Heard Them

The listening that you do should have as its ultimate aims supporting your employees and building a culture of trust. However, you can’t reach those goals unless you show authentic support.

As we weather these storms, employers should be reaching out to employees (those of color, those suffering anxiety or loss, those with health concerns) with messages of support and offering resources to ease their particular stresses. Such resources can take a number of forms, from employee resource groups to increased health benefits, flexible work schedules, and financial assistance.

Leaders must understand that listening is not a one-and-done process. Keep doing these three things over and over. If 2020 has taught us one thing, it is that our circumstances, priorities, and opportunities can change at the drop of a hat. If you’re always doing the essential work of listening, you’ll always know how best to respond when a crisis comes at you.

Jawaun Brown is a software engineer at CultureIQAria Walfrand is a CultureIQ program manager.

Read more in Business Communication

Jawaun Brown is a software engineer at CultureIQ, and Aria Walfrand is a CultureIQ program manager.