This story originally appeared on Forbes.com on October 27, 2020.
Role, function, tenure. These data points tell you nothing about who someone is and what matters to them. They are at best basic descriptors of employee value to the business and at worst a two-dimensional way to organize a diverse group of unique, creative and passionate three-dimensional humans.
What’s missing is real human insight, that deeper understanding of who employees are as people. For marketers — who know the only sustainable advantage is a deeper knowledge of our audience — that's bonkers.
Our company is composed of a diverse group of marketers. We are strategists, creatives, communications leaders and producers. Together we are pioneering what we call “change marketing,” a blend of change management and consumer marketing that guides companies in how to treat their employees with the same care they reserve for their customers. Doing this well means knowing as much about the people inside your company as you do about those you are trying to reach outside of it.
In our experience, most don’t. Businesses in every sector employ millions of people for years and never really know them.
What most of these companies are doing right now is going through some enterprise-level transformation. Many probably would be even without a global pandemic, so Covid-19 is just an accelerant to inevitable, essential change. At least half of these projects will fail, and it seems that one of the biggest causes of failure is the lack of human behavior change.
That’s right. It’s the employees they don't know who could cause them to fail.
With so much money ($1.3 trillion in 2018, for example) invested in transformation each year, this is a big problem. But there seems to be a simple solution to at least some of the waste: Get to know your people, and learn how to involve them in change, and you might end up on the right side of that scary failure statistic.
To get to know someone begins with one natural behavior: Listening. The Dalai Lama once said, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”
As illogical as it sounds, listening is not a common business behavior, from what I've seen. Engagement surveys, for example, often masquerade as listening tools. Most are not. They are closer to standardized school testing, designed to assess how well employees have been listening to the company. They tell us very little about what makes the unique and brilliant individuals inside every company actually tick.
Our change marketing work takes us inside a wide range of prominent companies. True employee insight is a gap we see everywhere. I thought it would be useful to share what we've learned and a few simple things that anyone driving change or leading people can do about it.
Why Knowing Your People Matters
In his powerful book The Purpose Economy, Aaron Hurst tells us that there are three things everyone looks for from the job they do that cut across every industry, every level of mastery and every dollar in salary:
• Growth: Can I develop my skills and my career doing this work?
• Relationships: Does this job give me the chance to foster positive, meaningful relationships with others?
• Impact: Can I make a meaningful difference in my community (or the wider world) here?
If you can’t help your people answer these questions, they will likely resist, rebel and ultimately run somewhere that can help them, even if you offer pay bumps and foosball tables.
Why Companies Don't Listen
Since the Industrial Revolution, companies have been marching methodically toward efficiency. For employees, that often means structures that increasingly organize them around similar capabilities and that shield most from the final product. The perceived wisdom is that as long as companies track the application and performance of these capabilities, they have enough data.
This focus on capability seems to be driven by an unspoken understanding that employment mandates compliance in every other area. But the truth is that the only mandate a paycheck buys is attendance — nothing more. Emotional drivers that inspire people to give their best, things like belief in a company vision or respect for a manager, need to be earned. And the only way to start is by listening to people.
What You’ll Hear If You Do
One of the most powerful things we learn when we listen is how people truly feel about change. Their readiness to accept and participate in any transformation process is not based on the job they do, but on how much they believe in the company they work for. Through our work, we’ve started to build an informal picture of employees across different industries. Somewhere around 1 in every 5 or 6 people genuinely believe in the company they work for and their role in it. On the other side, the same number of people genuinely don’t and will tell anyone why, given the chance.
About two-thirds of people live in the middle. Like political independents, they are swayable but need convincing. We've found that it’s this group you need to listen to most.
How To Listen
Learning how to listen probably deserves its own article, so for now, I’ll focus on two simple rules:
1. It’s about them, not you. When you are writing a survey or interview question, ask yourself if the answer best serves them or you. If the answer is you, then you’re not really listening.
2. Do something with what you hear. Most people want to tell you what you need to know. But if you ask for input and don’t do anything with it, then it feels like you weren’t really listening.
What To Do With What You Learn
This may sound controversial or perhaps too convenient, but we believe that the answer to every question you are asking already exists within your people. Each employee contributes a partial solution, like Lego bricks waiting to be assembled. It's only when you put them together in a single narrative that their true power is unlocked.