Listening - a tool for shifting from chaos to calm
Last week I reshared a blog that I had written in the summer of 2020. The world was in chaos with political division, riots in the streets, and C😝VID. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that we could significantly improve our lives and the world if we learned to be better listeners. So I set out to help others by sharing and reminding myself of the process of listening, unpacking the many subtleties and benefits of listening. The result of this introspection and sharing became a 30-day listening challenge. Each day consisted of a post that contained a short story about some aspect of listening and a simple listening awareness prompt to improve your ability to listen with empathy for that day. Specifically, the post I reshared last week was Day 8, about Steve Jobs and the genius he was at listening and observing (even observations "tell" you something). I broke down what I believed to be the three levels of listening that he used so brilliantly it gave the world the iPhone and many other innovations.
Listening, intuition, and seeing the path forward
While the world still has its level of chaos (turn on the news), company leaders have turned inward to examine their internal challenges and turmoil. This shift is an intelligent move, as focusing on our internal locus of control is where progress happens. While considering the risks of outside circumstances is beneficial at times, it often turns into a what-if fest of worry leading to becoming stuck. Focusing internally on the effects of the great resignation, the labor shortage, and how employee experience impacts business performance provides us the opportunity to listen intuitively and begin to see the path forward.
Connecting the dots
First, let me explain the connection between the Steve Jobs blog post and today's post about Glassdoor reviews. How can we use Steve Jobs' three levels of listening to uncover the path forward to improving employee engagement, productivity, and ultimately profits? Here's a summary of the three levels we are tuning in to. The explanation that follows is the 50,000 feet view, so you'll likely want to review Jobs's post after this one if you want to dig deeper. The summary is below. When it comes to listening, it's essential to listen intuitively for:
What was said?
What was unsaid?
What is the need behind what was said and unsaid?
If you'd like to learn about how Steve Jobs used these levels to create the iPhone, be sure to check out the post. If not, you'll get a glimpse of how it works as we look at a few sample company reviews from Glassdoor through the three levels. Below we'll examine the levels of listening for three randomly chosen employee reviews. One each from McKinsey & Co., IDEO, and Gartner.
While there is debate on the accuracy of Glassdoor reviews and whether companies have found a way to pad their reviews, the reviews still show the ability to glean information that leads to greater engagement, productivity, and innovation. Of course, genuinely listening involves many more questions than Glassdoor prompts, but I believe you'll get a taste for the insightful information you can glean through listening.
McKinsey & Company
Below is an image of the Glassdoor review content from a current employee of McKinsey & Co. In using the three levels, you can gain new insights from each statement this current employee noted. For this blog, we will only dig deeper into one of the employee statements.
What was said:
"Solving difficult (not straightforward) problems."
As a design thinking consultant, I would be remiss to say that this statement doesn't tell McKinsey anything they don't already know. After all, to live up to their mission "To help our clients make distinctive, lasting, and substantial improvements in their performance," they have to be able to solve complex problems that their clients have been unable to solve. After all, on some level, they are in the problem-solving business - did this employee miss the memo? Of course not. They couldn't have made it through their extensive hiring process without understanding this. So in an actual listening encounter, a leader would have lots of follow-up questions. Whether McKinsey uses the Socratic Method, the 5 Why's, or other methods, it's essential their leaders get extremely curious about why solving difficult problems is an negative issue for this employee who works for a company hired to solve difficult problems.
What was unsaid:
Much like the vagueness of what was said, intuitively discerning what was unsaid is difficult in this one-dimensional review. However, pretend with me you could piece the conversation together better and ask even a few more questions. You'd likely find hints (if not outright statements) to the fact that the employee discomfort with complex problems is also more complicated. Here are just a few examples of what leaders could decipher in the user interview of a leading by design project:
"I don't like doing this. My personality is better suited for X."
"I feel inadequate solving complex problems."
"I would enjoy the job more if I felt more successful."
"I would enjoy the job more if the path to successful problem solving was more clear."
The need behind what was said and unsaid:
The needs could be one or many. Again this is where the beauty of leading by design - using the innovative principles of design thinking as a leadership practice is extremely useful. Leaders no longer have to guess what the needs of their employees are. If for some reason, it wasn't clear in the empathy phase (phase 1 of design thinking), employees (the user's in leading by design) would course correct in the define phase and refine more in the testing phase. It truly takes collaboration to a whole new level. Employees and leaders aren't just collaborating to solve a problem for someone out there somewhere, but problems that impact their teams' performance. Problems they as a team struggle with right now. These internal innovations allow performance to rise, like a hot air balloon as you release the weighted bags. But I digress. Here are several potential needs behind the pain point for this employee:
Bad job fit. Assuming this current employee is seen as an asset and has other indicators of positive potential, this could turn into a win-win. McKinsey leaders could match the individual's personality and skills with a job that suits them better - ultimately creating new levels of success for the employee and the company.
Opportunity to job craft. When leaders dig into why an employee feels unsuccessful or unprepared for solving problems, they uncover that only a particular aspect of the project creates this negative feeling. And the negative feeling overshadows many elements of the job they love. Leaders who know these details, for all the team members, open up opportunities to job craft. Thus, allowing people to do more of what they love. Engagement and productivity increase.
Lack of training. The employee may not have the skills for the position. Specifically, are employees with this job function given design thinking training? Design thinking is world-renowned as a complex or creative problem-solving process. Employees whose primary function is complex problem-solving would benefit from design thinking certification.
Lack of leadership support or guidance. Perhaps training every employee in the design thinking process is unobtainable. However, it's a myth worth debunking that it's not feasible for every leader to receive training in design thinking methods. I debunk the myth in a 6-minute video here.
Lack of resources. Whether it's a lack of resources or lack of assertiveness on the employee's part to find them, it's possible there is a bottleneck in getting the resources and information necessary for their job. There again, there is much to learn and innovate through a deeper conversation.
Below is an image of the Glassdoor review content from a current employee of IDEO for more than 10 years. In using the three levels, you can gain new insights from each statement this current employee noted. Again, we will only dig deeper into one of the employee statements. And as stated above our illustration is limited based on the one-dimensional nature of the conversation.
What was said:
It is hard to connect with people you're not working directly with. It's hard to connect with peers, since at most levels your peers are doing similar jobs on different projects."
What was unsaid:
Here are just a few examples of what leaders could decipher in the user interview of a leading by design project:
"I feel awkward approaching people I don't know. I wish the company brought other people doing the same job together. Sometimes I know another person with my job could provide insight into a challenge I'm facing but I feel like I would be a bother."
"I am the only one that does my job or has my experience on my design team even though there are many others like me in the company. I wish we could all get together and talk about our experiences, successes, and failures. I'm sure I could learn so much. And I enjoy connecting with like-minded people."
"I'm the only one who does X on my team and it gets lonely. While my perspective is valued, it would still be nice to connect with people that understood me rather than feeling like I'm all alone in my thinking or thinking I have to sell my perspective each time I share it."
"Collaboration is great and I love when our team wins we all win. But sometimes I think it would be great to be recognized for being great at my specific role. To know how I stack up against the others doing the same role." (This was also an unsaid item in another Con in the review about "management won't show you how to succeed".)
The need behind what was said and unsaid:
The needs could be one or many. Using leading by design leaders no longer have to guess what the needs of their employees are. Here are several potential needs behind the pain point for this employee:
Social and/or communication skills. This is a basic tenet of success in any job or enterprise. Understanding the employee situation more fully through empathy will help leaders facilitate opportunities for learning these crucial skills.
Build community. A sense of belonging is a trait that all humans share. For example, 1.8 Billion People Connect in Facebook groups regularly. From sharing tips, asking questions, learning, etc. group members are passionate about their topic of choice. And there are other ways to building community from having monthly meetups for the group around different topics of interest to annual (or more often) conferences.
Well-being. According to a Mind Tools article "Research undertaken in 2015 shows that loneliness can be worse for your brain and your body, over time, than alcohol and smoking. But when loneliness strikes at work, it becomes as much a business issue as a health issue. It affects not just how you feel, but how you perform." A more extensive conversation with the employee(s) allows this issue not to be an employee problem leaving them feeling more isolated but a team challenge that brings everyone together through compassion.
Recognition. In Strength Finders as well as in several personality types, significance adds depth and meaning to the lives of many humans. Humans with this need are intrinsically motivated to influence their organization or the people around them. Working on a small design team with little recognition outside the team may not fulfill this need. Recognition can be more than peer awards. It could be highlighting their story in company promotional materials, letting them author articles on a regular basis, serving in the community, or other ideas.
Below is an image of the Glassdoor review content from a current employee of Gartner for more than 3 years. In using the three levels, you can gain new insights from each statement this current employee noted. Again, we will only dig deeper into one of the employee statements. And as stated above our illustration is limited based on the one-dimensional nature of the conversation.
What was said:
Conservative, risk-averse. Talks a big game about innovation but actually change comes very slowly. Decisions are top-down, hierarchies are rigid, and low-level folks don't have much of a voice.