Asking vs. listening: What the difference means for employee engagement
Jason Lauritsen

By: Jason Lauritsen on June 20th, 2019

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Asking vs. listening: What the difference means for employee engagement

Talent and Culture

Est. Read Time: 3 min.

Listening is one of those things that you probably don’t spend much time thinking about but ends up having a big impact on your life. For example, I’m the parent of a “tween” daughter who is finding it more and more challenging to listen to me. Just yesterday, I asked her nicely to clean up the mess she’d left the evening before. She had nodded when I first asked. To ensure that she heard me, I reminded her again a bit later. She nodded again. I assumed we were good and that I was understood.


I left the house to run an errand. Upon returning, I found her sitting on the couch. When I asked if she had cleaned up the mess, she looked at me with a puzzled face. I followed up with a question, “What did I ask you to do?” She paused for a moment, sheepishly smiled, and said, “I actually have no idea.” She hadn’t been listening. At all. It was maddening.


I’m sure you can probably think of your own examples of “listening fails.” Maybe it’s a significant other who stares at his phone when you talk to him, or a boss who’s scanning emails during a meeting, or someone at a party who keeps glancing over your shoulder as you’re talking to her.  


It’s a frustrating experience that leaves you feeling like that person doesn’t really value what you’re saying, or even worse, doesn’t respect you. When someone really listens to you, it has an impact on you. It feels great. And you crave more of the same.  


Listening matters. It builds and strengthens relationships. It’s at the core of all good communication. This brings me to the topic of employee surveys.


In my experience, one of the most common reasons that surveys don’t deliver the desired impact is that they’re treated as an exercise in “asking questions” of employees instead of truly listening to them. To understand the difference, let’s consider what it takes to be a good listener.


5 tips for active listening applied to employee surveys

Practicing good listening skills is often referred to as “active listening” and can be broken into five simple steps. These steps are critical to interpersonal communication. They can also help provide guidance for how we can use our surveys to really listen to employees.


1. Pay attention

My daughter failed at listening to me because she was distracted by technology. She wasn’t paying attention when I was talking to her.


For employee surveys, the act of launching a survey shows you’re paying attention. The next step is to ensure that your leaders have the time and energy following the survey to do something with the results.


2. Show that you're listening

With one-to-one communication, this is about making eye contact and giving other cues to the speaker that you’re listening to them. It’s also about asking good questions.


For employee surveys, one of the best ways to demonstrate your commitment to listening is to ask good questions that reflect an understanding of the employee’s experience at your organization. If there have been substantial changes within your organization, ask about the impact. If you’ve surveyed in the past, ask follow-up questions about what employees have said in the past.


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3. Provide feedback

One of the most powerful ways to demonstrate that you’re listening is to repeat back to the person you’re listening to what you heard them say. This shows them that you’re listening and ensures that you heard them correctly.  


For employee surveys, you’ve probably heard about the importance of follow-up. Follow-up has two important parts. First, summarize what you heard from employees through the survey and share it back with them. Completing this feedback loop sends a loud message to employees that this wasn’t just a hollow exercise. You were actually listening to what was said.


4. Defer judgment

When we listen to others, it can be tempting to jump to conclusions about what we think we’re hearing. This often causes us to interrupt the other person or rush to judgment in other ways.


three-employees-standing-at-deskFor employee surveys, the same is true. Surveys can reveal a lot of information but they frequently prompt as many new questions as they answer. For example, you might learn that employees feel that communication is lacking. What exactly does that mean? Your assumptions about what it means could be completely different than what employees are looking for. Rather than making assumptions, you may need to ask more questions before deciding how to respond. This can be done through follow-up discussions or focus groups.


5. Respond appropriately.

When we truly listen to others, it often leads us to feel like we should take some action based on what we’ve heard. Had my daughter been listening to me, she would have cleaned up her mess. At times, responding appropriately can be as simple as saying, “I’m sorry you had to go through that.” In others, it might mean making a commitment to take a specific action to improve a situation.


For employee surveys, this is the second part of taking action based on the survey. In addition to closing the feedback loop, it’s also important to take meaningful steps to address what was said. If you have communication gaps to address, you should share what you intend to do to address them.  


Listening is vital to an effective employee survey. Asking questions without listening to and taking action on what you hear is often worse than never asking questions in the first place.

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About Jason Lauritsen

Jason Lauritsen is a keynote speaker, author, and consultant. He is an employee engagement and workplace culture expert who will challenge you to think differently. A former corporate Human Resources executive, Jason has dedicated his career to helping leaders build organizations that are good for both people and profits. Most recently, he led the research team for Quantum Workplace’s Best Places to Work program where he has studied the employee experience at thousands of companies to understand what the best workplaces in the world do differently than the rest. Jason is the co-author of the book, Social Gravity: Harnessing the Natural Laws of Relationships, and author of his new book, Unlocking High Performance, to be published by Kogan Page in October 2018.