This blog is provided by the IPR Organizational Communication Research Center.

In February 2020 we started to conduct interviews with communication professionals for a new study on the importance of listening in organizations.  A few weeks later, our efforts came to a screeching halt as the COVID-19 pandemic led to workplaces being completely shut down. Once we were able to resume the study in April, everyone’s focus shifted to the transformational impact of the pandemic on internal communication more broadly.

The first phase of our study involved interviews with 30 U.S. communication management professionals. The sample included 22 women and 8 men with an average of 22 years of experience in public relations and communication.

We found that while remote work and physical distancing requirements have made listening to employees more challenging, it’s never been more important to make a concerted effort.  Organizations have had to rely more on video conference services, mobile apps, and more timely pulse surveys for routine feedback. An internal communication professional described the focus of their pulse surveys during the pandemic:

So, focusing on their sentiment, how are employees feeling right now, and getting adjectives to describe their feelings and their sentiment about the current environment, information on how they feel that they’re being communicated from leadership, health and safety, remote work. Productivity for the folks, especially the folks who are experiencing remote work for the first time, how do we tell that story? What employee support and resources do they need?

Organizations must be willing to change and remain open to the feedback of employees when conducting pulse surveys. Organizations may engage in “pseudo-listening” when they collect data but do not listen in earnest when change or other action is required to solve employee concerns. Our study recommends that organizations listen authentically, with an attitude of genuineness and responsibility, rather than listening for points of agreement or pseudo-listening. Although it’s important to make efforts to sincerely listen to employees, it’s also vital to close the feedback loop. A communication manager working in the financial services industry talked about their efforts to do this effectively:

We have the mantra if you are asking for feedback, it is critical that you close the loop and say that you have at least heard that feedback. We cannot promise we’re going to fix everything. We’re not going to get staffing levels on the call center to the level that they want, or it’s not a successful business model. But we need to at least acknowledge that we have heard that. So, we do that in the channel of choice whenever possible, so wherever that feedback is shared, someone should go back in and close the loop, and acknowledge the feedback at least. And then, when we are leveraging that feedback to drive different content or different communications that we’re sharing with employees, we’re trying to anchor to “as you’ve shared in Pulse, Employee Job Sentiment,” whatever channel it is. “As we heard employees share in X channel, we are now doing this.”

Closing the feedback loop is critical to encourage employees to share their feedback so that they believe that speaking up will make a difference.  Otherwise, employees are likely to remain silent, which can prevent organizations from receiving valuable feedback. Employee silence refers to “withholding relevant ideas, information, or opinions” due to beliefs that speaking up is unlikely to make a difference (i.e. acquiescent silence) or fear of personal consequences (i.e. defensive silence) (Van Dyne et al., 2003, p. 1,366).

Overall, we found a need for significant improvement in organizational listening. Most of the participants said the ratio was 60:40 for distributing messages (“talking”) compared to about 40% listening; and, in some organizations, the ratio was severely mismatched with a ratio of 90% talking compared to 10% listening. Based on these findings, we recommend that organizations make a concerted effort to prioritize listening to their employees and identify the most effective communication channels to do so. Authenticity is key when communicating with employees so that they know their feedback will be taken seriously. We also recommend that communication professionals deliberately communicate to employees that they are being heard by sharing feedback with them and then discuss ways that the organization is implementing their recommendations.

Van Dyne, L., Ang, S. and Botero, I.C. (2003), “Conceptualizing employee silence and employee voice as multidimensional constructs”, Journal of Management Studies, Vol. 40 No. 6, pp. 1359-1392.
The study has since been published in the Journal of Communication Management and is titled “Ethical listening to employees during a pandemic: new approaches, barriers, and lessons.”
The study was sponsored by a grant from the Arthur W. Page Center.

Marlene S. Neill, Ph.D., is an associate professor at Baylor University where she teaches courses in advertising and public relations. 

Shannon A. Bowen, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina where her research focuses on ethical decision making within the highest levels of organizations.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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