Why You Should Listen to Your Employees – Lessons from Virgin, Microsoft and Zendesk

Martina Cicakova

Communication is the cornerstone of building trust in relationships. And high performing teams need trust to work effectively. To create a team culture where people feel safe to speak without the fear of criticism, having honest conversations is paramount.

But communication is not just telling your employees more about what you do. It’s a two-way street. And listening is a key component.

Companies around the world who understand this are shifting from closed-door leadership styles to ones promoting open and transparent work cultures in which leaders do listen.

We looked at some of the top companies in the world to learn why and how they do this. Let’s dive straight in.

Why companies listen to their employees

While managers might have various reasons for listening to their employees, there are three main trends that drive this need:

  • The workforce demands that employers be transparent
  • Listening is the key to building trust
  • Companies want to boost innovation and growth

Let’s look at them more closely.

The workforce demands that employers be transparent

According to research by Glassdoor, 96% of job seekers say it’s important to work for a company that embraces transparency. It’s one of the most critical demands from employees that managers face, according to Forbes HR Council.

The changing needs of the modern workforce impel companies to adapt. If they want to attract new workers, companies need to listen to their concerns and demands.

As Hannah Lawrence, Zendesk’s Senior Internal Communications Manager phrased it, “To some extent, there is a bit of a chicken and egg issue at play: transparency helps build trust, but a culture of trust is needed for leaders to be comfortable with transparency.”

While transparency is not always easy for leaders to embrace, it’s the ultimate way to earn your employees’ trust and loyalty.

Listening is the key to building trust

Trust is the secret ingredient of successful teams. Google studied its high performing teams to evaluate their effectiveness and discovered it boils down to one factor: psychological safety.

In other words, building trust helped team members feel safer to speak up, take risks and be vulnerable. As a result, the team was less likely to fail.

As explained earlier, building trust goes hand in hand with being transparent. John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, notes in his book, “If you’re trying to create a high-trust organization, an organization where people are all-for-one and one-for-all, you can’t have secrets.”

The second key to building trust is opening your ears to employees’ concerns. It’s also the first step toward transparency. That’s why companies are shifting from top-down corporate communications models to approaches that drive organizational conversation.

The most effective channel to do this is your internal communications.

As Hannah Lawrence puts it, “Internal communications is vital to organizational trust because it’s the function that drives top-down transparency, ensures consistency and clarity of messaging, and creates opportunities for two-way dialogue between leadership and employees.”

Companies want to boost innovation and growth

Talking to the employees is the most effective way to collect ideas for improvement and drive innovation in your company.

Research shows engaged employees are more likely to accelerate growth and twice as likely to achieve above-average productivity according to Workplace Research Foundation.

To achieve this, start listening to employees, especially those on the front line.

Companies spend a lot of time listening to their customers to keep the customers are happy. They collect customer feedback to improve products or services. So why don’t they listen to their employees in the same way?

Sir Richard Branson, Founder of the Virgin Group, is famous for his leadership style that puts the employee before the customer. As he phrased it, “Innovation happens when people are given the freedom to ask questions and the resources and power to find the answers.”

Manager listening to an employee in the office

How companies go about listening

The process of listening to employees is twofold. On the one hand, it means creating a safe space for people to ask questions, even tough ones, and being prepared to explain the rationale behind your company’s decisions.

On the other, it’s also about listening actively to employee feedback and showing that their opinions matter.

We looked at how successful companies go about listening. Here are three practices they have in common:

  • Host regular Q&A sessions with the leadership
  • Create a safe space to collect questions
  • Actively invite employee feedback and act upon it

Let’s dive into more detail about each of these practices.

Host regular Q&A sessions with the leadership

The key pillar of building a transparent work culture is creating a platform for the employees to ask questions and being prepared to respond.

As the first step, set up a regular Q&A session with the CEO and leadership team. You can make it part of your all-hands meeting or create a separate ongoing “Ask Me Anything” Q&A program with the leaders.

World-class companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft, who have historically worked toward transparency with their employees, run regular CEO Q&A sessions:

As Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP of People Operations, explains, “everything is up for question and debate, from the trivial…to the ethical.”

 (Read: How to host better Q&A sessions with your employees.)

Create a safe environment to collect questions

Opening up to employee questions is just half the battle. It doesn’t mean everyone will voice their concerns.

To ensure the real issues come to the surface, give your employees the opportunity to ask questions anonymously.

Many companies have embraced this practice:

  • Facebook allows its employees to ask questions both in person and anonymously via the polling feature on Facebook Groups.
  • Google’s internal system “Dory” also allows employees to submit anonymously and vote on questions.
  • Microsoft employees can submit anonymous questions in advance and vote on them in a Yammer group called “CEO Connection”.

If you don’t have your own internal tool, live Q&A platforms are a great way to collect questions anonymously.

Many companies including Marks & Spencer and Zendesk use Slido for this purpose. It allows you to collect questions before and during the Q&A session and lets people vote on which question they want answered the most.

As Marks & Spencer shared with us: “Thanks to the anonymous feature, we’re able to hear more voices of the people who wouldn’t put their hand up in the room or step forward. People find it comforting and it’s very useful for us.”

Whatever tool you use, allowing people to ask anonymously will take you a long way toward building trust and help you create a real culture of transparency.

Actively invite employee feedback and act upon it

The third practice that helps companies listen is collecting feedback from the team. 

Employee feedback is pivotal for driving innovation and improvement within companies. While it’s important to give your employees an opportunity to speak up, not everyone is prepared to do so on their own initiative.

In other words, it’s not just about passive listening. Listen to your employees actively by asking them questions. Let them bring new ideas to the table and learn from them.

The Virgin Group Founder, Sir Richard Branson, puts a lot of emphasis on listening to employees and implementing their ideas. He speaks regularly with staff, writes their feedback down and acts on it.

As he told the Business Insider, “Being a good listener is absolutely critical to being a good leader; you have to listen to the people on the front line…they know when things are not going right, and…when things need to be improved. And if you listen to them, you can soon…turn an average company into an exceptional company.”

Talk to your employees to see what’s going well and what’s not working. Employee feedback will give you a tangible basis to re-evaluate strategy and create a better employee experience. As a result, employees will feel happier and more valued.

In sum, listening to your employees is the key to building a transparent company culture based on mutual trust. Create a safe workplace where people can voice their concerns, ask questions and share their ideas. Leveraging these tips will help you drive innovation and make your employees feel valued.

Get just a single email per month
with our best articles.