top of page

Hearing but not listening

At home we have a joke.

When I was living with my mum she was always worried about me eating enough nutritious food. Every single time we sat down to eat she would ask how many spoons of rice or lentils I wanted.

I would always say one, and she would inevitably give me two.

Did she ask my opinion? Yes.

Did she consult me? Yes.

Did she hear what I say? Yes.

But she wasn't listening. My view wasn’t taken into account, because she already knew what she wanted to do.

Sometimes, I think about my mum when I talk to managers about employee engagement.

I’m sure you’ll agree with me that top-down leadership approach is a thing of the past, but the problem for many managers is finding an effective way of listening to their teams and collecting their views and contributions in order to create learning and impact in their organisations.

Did you know that in a recent Digits survey of 1,031 UK workers, 26% of managers said that they had received no management training?

How can we bring more listening and engaging with employees and team members if we don’t show people how to do it?

Resolving the problems organisations are facing, such as retaining talent in the midst of the Great Resignation, continuing to innovate, organising work in hybrid and remote environments, and aligning purpose and growth, will not come from solutions designed at the executive level.

They’ll come from creating conversations in organisations that mobilise knowledge and feedback from all levels.

Are these conversations happening in most organisations?

I’m not sure.

Nearly 57 million Americans quit their jobs between January 2021 and February 2022, and the shortage of labour and the Great Resignation have become hot topics.

According to the World Economic Forum, for the first time since records began in the UK there are now more job opportunities than there are unemployed people. And in the European Union an average of 3% of jobs remain vacant.

According to McKinsey, two-fifths of people are unhappy at work and are considering leaving their job in the near future.

It seems to me that more listening is needed.

But how? How can you start helping people in organisations to listen and translate ideas on improving the workplace culture, innovation and performance into actual projects?

I find this study of 18 companies in the UK and the Republic of Ireland interesting.

It refers to five ways of listening to employees voice used in these companies:

  • Exchange of views, or two-way communication: This is happening when employees and managers exchange views about issues. It can be on individual matters or even a collective consultation. That was the case for a transportation company whose MD arranged pub meetings once a month on Sunday mornings with all the drivers. Middle management did not attend: only the Finance Director and the MD were present. You can count here too employee surveys.

  • Upward problem-solving: Employees provide feedback on specific topics to generate ideas. Sometimes it’s done on a digital platform where employees can ask questions or offer feedback, to enhance downward communication from workers to managers .

  • Collective representation: Employee union or non-union representatives communicate employees’ views about their work and working conditions to managers, including collective bargaining.

  • Creating Engagement: Fostering a feeling on the part of the staff that they can express their views in an open and trusted environment where psychological safety is provided and respected.

  • Facilitating a say in things: There is a realistic expectation that staff views will be taken into account.

According to the authors of the research, the first three are concerned with processes, and the last two with outcomes.

I guess that they respond to different questions. The first three are about hearing what people want to say and need data gathering. The last two are concerned with listening and need more creative and innovative engagement initiatives to deliver results.


This might be why in most task-orientated working environments we find mainly employee surveys, digital platforms and consultations offering employees the opportunity to express their views. These methods are process-orientated and don’t guarantee outcomes. They guarantee that workers’ voices will be heard, but not necessarily that they will be listened to or taken into account.

Only when we move to the next two levels, engagement and having a say in things, we are really tapping into the potential of listening.

There are a couple of things that can be done to create more engagement in your team or organisation.

  • You can learn to listen without an agenda. That means listening not to confirm what you want to hear, but to hear what needs to be said.

  • And you can encourage people to talk knowing that somebody is actually listening, helping them to say the hard things that really matter and make a difference.

How would it look if you put listening and speaking up at the centre? What opportunities would you create, how would job retention improve, and what effect would it have on innovation?


Tired of trying to convince people around?
This might be what you need!
A jargon-free space for mastering the art of communicati
ng effectively and effortlessly

bottom of page