My first experience of the world of work came at the age of fifteen.
My best friend’s Aunt worked as a Personal Assistant at the European Commission in Brussels and we were given the opportunity to stay with her for a work experience placement. This was worlds apart from my limited experiences growing up in mid Wales. As I reflect on my fifteen-year-old self’s awareness of what ‘work’ was all about, I may have summed it up like this: it’s about doing what is asked of you and doing it to your best ability. Just like school, right? And yes, I hate to admit it but ‘conscientious’ made a regular appearance on my school reports.
Confidence and sharing ideas
What really strikes me as I reflect on this, is that I wouldn’t have given much thought to my desire to be seen and heard at work. It had been repressed and, honestly, I’m not sure confidence had been instilled in me. But I was confident. On the inside. My brain was brimming with thoughts, opinions, ideas and reflections. It just hadn’t yet occurred to me that work might be the place to share them. As it was, I was right. My standout memory from that trip was the Vice President throwing some coins across the desk and telling me to go down to the shop to buy him some cigarettes. ‘But, I’m fifteen, it’s illegal for me to buy cigarettes’ I silently cried in my head as I dutifully did as I was told. Twenty-five years on and luckily the world of work has changed. We care that people have a voice and are listened to, we care that people have the confidence to share their ideas and feel safe to speak up when something isn’t right.
I feel privileged and lucky to have worked with some fabulous organisations over the years, all doing their utmost to help people be their best at work, give their best and have the best experiences. I have written about the importance of employee voice, I have run leadership workshops and facilitated countless development events on listening. I have measured and reported and ranked the ability of leaders to listen and I have surveyed, interviewed and focus grouped the heck out of employees to find out if they are feeling heard and what more can be done to give them a voice. I have passionately strategised and developed and analysed and implemented. And each time we make progress. We make life at work better for someone. We make Monday mornings a little more bearable. Dare I say it, maybe we even make life at work fun.
I’m now a Senior Strategist at Home – an employee experience agency – and we have just published the findings from The Work Project. It is more than a little disheartening to read that in 2023, we are finding that 1 in 3 people don’t feel listened to at work. Yes, it is better than it was, but it is still a third of our workforce. And 30% don’t feel safe to speak up if something isn’t right. The psychological safety that was lacking in my fifteen-year-old mind in Brussels, is a very real and very normal experience for one in three of us. Still. And it’s not because people don’t care about being heard. When asked to select the top three qualities for their dream boss, the number one quality was a good listener. It is human nature to want to be heard.
Creating a culture of listening
So, what can we do about this? For me, personally, the answer lies in creating a culture of listening. Helping people to cultivate strong listening skills and making listening – rather than telling – the norm. It is important for organisation’s to teach their people good listening skills, so they can listen with the intent to understand, not just with the intent to reply. Listening empathically so you really know how the other person feels. Listening from a place of deep connection, tapping into collective creativity and allowing new insights and solutions to emerge. Leveraging the creativity and innovation that is inside each and every one of us. Knowing that the greatest skill of a leader is not to have all the answers, but to know how to bring them out in others.
Find the right questions
The best advice I have ever had to improve my listening skills and help others feel safe to speak up is to find the right questions and pose them gently, without judgement or expectation. My favourite is ‘Is there anything we have missed?’. It’s inclusive, it’s collective and it opens the door for others to share their silent cries out loud. There is no magic pill but there are many and varied tried and tested methods that work – weekly pulse checks, constructive daydreaming, innovation hubs, employee groups, employee reps, shadow boards, people analytics, employee voice/listening strategies, culture change programmes, leadership coaching, mentoring and development, lifecycle surveys. You name it, it is out there. And it is the intent that sets the good ones apart. The ones that are designed and delivered with a real human intent to make people feel heard. Organisations which do this well – where the 2 in 3 of us are fortunate enough to work – put significant effort and thought into their approach to employee voice and listening. It matters – not just for business, but also for humanity. So that we can all be our best and feel good. You just have to mean it. You have to put the effort in and then you really have to listen. It actually is that simple. I can only hope my fifteen-year-old self would be proud of the progress we have made; despite the distance we still have to travel.