Listening to Lead Through Disruption: What Headlines Won’t Tell You
Over the course of my career as an external HR consultant, I have had the privilege of working with some of the world’s largest and most well-known companies as they’ve dealt with one of the most challenging and disruptive periods in recent history. As new issues have emerged, we have all had to learn together as we go.
The One Essential Lesson: “It Depends”
Drawing on those experiences, there’s one essential lesson that has stood the test of time. Early in my career, one of my mentors told me, “The right answer to almost every question you will be asked as a consultant is ‘it depends.’” As unpopular as that advice may be, it’s essential. There is no single right answer. The issues and challenges are complicated, organizations are complicated, and leaders are complicated. There is very rarely any single approach or solution that will work in every situation.
Throughout the workweek, leaders and HR professionals will pick up the paper or scroll their newsfeeds. While doing this, they will find themselves inundated with headlines about the latest workforce trends. Here’s a sample of what they might see:
As we all adjusted to long-term remote work or sorted out a rushed return-to-office strategy, everyone read about “The New Normal.” Then we started to see headlines about “The Great Resignation.” Pretty soon, those intrepid souls who stayed with their organizations were informed they were paying “The Loyalty Tax.” Recently, I pulled a headline from The Wall Street Journal that read “If Your Quiet Quitting is Going Well, You Might Be Getting ‘Quiet Fired.’”
These phrases are catchy and effective at creating a sense of urgency, but they don’t always tell the whole story or reflect what’s going on in every organization.
Of course, there’s a good bit of truth and in most cases some reasonable data supporting each of those headlines. I don’t want to dismiss or discount them, but I do want to challenge the assumptions we make based on those headlines and emphasize the importance of not acting solely on the basis of headlines.
When it comes to the question of what we should do about the problems highlighted in these headlines, the answer will always be, “It depends.”
Putting the Hype into Context
What exactly does the answer depend on? What kind of context do we need to inform the right approach and the right action for your organization?
- The headlines provide insight into the external context — what macro trends are we seeing in the economy, labor market, political climate, and so forth. What are the risks we should be aware of? What are other organizations seeing? I spend a lot of time clarifying and quantifying these trends for the organizations I consult with.
- But leaders and HR professionals also bring insight into the internal context — what is the culture of your organization? What are your strategic priorities and business needs? What are you trying to achieve? The approach we take to addressing the issues making headlines should align with the internal business and talent strategy.
- In addition to those contextual factors, we need data to make informed decisions about how we respond. We need actionable insights to inform our approach. What is driving turnover for your employees during the “Great Resignation? How do they feel about returning to the office, working remotely, or adopting a hybrid approach as we think about what the ”New Normal” should look like for your unique organization? This data piece is so often missing — and not usually because we don’t have enough data — but because we don’t have the right data or aren’t using our data effectively.
The Current State of Listening
At Perceptyx, our recent State of Employee Listening report found that 94% of organizations have an employee listening program of some kind. Almost everyone is listening, and they are listening more than ever before. 3 out of 4 organizations indicated they are listening more now than they were a year ago.
However, only 40% say they are using this listening data to inform company decisions. Organizations are collecting a lot of data, but they are not using it as effectively as they could or should.
What Are Those 40% Getting Right?
What differentiates the 40% of organizations that indicated listening data was being used to inform decisions from those that indicated it wasn’t?
One key difference was the topics they asked about and measured.
Everyone wants to know about Engagement, Culture, DEIB, and Well-Being. Those are now table stakes in high-level organizational discussions. All leaders want to know how their employees are feeling in general.
Those organizations that use listening to inform decisions were more likely to ask the hard questions on more specific topics related to the things their leaders read about in the headlines. This includes questions related to social justice, new benefits in response to the pandemic, ongoing adaptation to change management, remote and hybrid work, and the effectiveness of their communication strategies. Once they have the data in hand, they can make the necessary adjustments.
Listening Pays Off
Using listening to inform organizational decision-making pays major dividends. The State of Employee Listening found that organizations that consult listening data when making decisions saw clear performance benefits.
This type of strategic listening and action has a real impact on the things that are most important to the executive team: customer metrics, financial performance, innovation, agility, and retention of highly engaged employees.
Your employee survey should not be an obligatory annual activity that requires employees to set aside valuable time to check some boxes. It should be about getting the specific information you need to make informed decisions and take informed actions.
Our library of case studies shows how our most strategic and mature customers have employed listening to optimize business outcomes:
- Principal Financial Group used our Dialogue product to quickly gather insights across its 18,500-person organization at the height of the pandemic.
- IPG Mediabrands and Kinesso — both part of Interpublic Group (IPG) — have used employee listening to enhance DEIB efforts across their organizations.
- Columbia Sportswear Company has used insights from its continuous listening program to elevate its retail operations.
- Cengage Group has used census survey data to guide important conversations about manager effectiveness, individual employee development and succession planning, DEI, and compensation.
Listening to Your People Throughout Disruption
When the pandemic began and many of our customers were trying to sort out how to keep their employees safe and support them while they worked from home, our consulting team came together and laid out a plan to help these organizations.
We started putting together survey content to help leaders get the insights that they needed from employees at that moment to make the hard decisions with which they were now tasked. We offered COVID response, safety and remote work surveys to all of our customers for free. A lot of these surveys deployed in less than 24 hours and a lot of customers deployed multiple surveys during that time. You know what? We didn’t hear about survey fatigue. What we heard was how grateful our customers’ employees were for the opportunity to provide feedback and have a voice as critical decisions were being made on their behalf.
Much as leaders need insight from employees, employees need to feel heard. They need to have a voice during times of disruption. These are the moments that matter most to them.
A recent Gartner study found that when employees felt heard, they were twice as likely to stay with the organization. But of those employees who didn’t feel heard or didn't believe that their perspectives were taken into consideration by leaders, 42% reported that they intend to leave in the next year.
Putting Headlines into Perspective with Perceptyx
As leaders, we can’t pick up the paper and assume the daily headlines and their latest trend stories provide an adequate understanding of the problems facing our organizations. The media will tempt us to be reactive and rush to solve problems, but it’s critical that we put those headlines into context and take informed actions.
Listening to employees and giving them a voice during these times of uncertainty isn’t a “nice to have.” It’s the most important thing you can do as you lead through disruption and trailblaze the way forward for your organization and people.
Don’t just ask how they are doing, be intentional about what you ask and leverage the feedback you receive to make data-driven decisions. Whatever the next headline might be, the way you should respond will depend on what’s going on in your organization and what your people are telling you. To learn more about how Perceptyx can bring clarity to this process, schedule a meeting with a member of our team.