Many organizations rely on surveys to understand how employees think and feel.  But surveys rarely lead to effective action or lasting change.  Management teams get mired in analyzing the results, debating the meaning of various numbers, and arguing over what people really meant by their responses. There’s a better way: it’s called conversation.  In a perfect world, we’d have conversations with our fellow employees every day – but many of us are stuck in meetings talking to each other.  ‘Listening tours’ are a great way for mangers to get out to the front-line lines and have meaningful conversations with a large cross-section of the team. How to conduct a listening tour:
  • As a team, select a topic for your listening tour.  It’s useful to focus on ‘tough’ issues: the ones that resist solution, or are especially frustrating.
  • As a team, pick three or four good, open-ended questions about this issue.  The best questions will require thought and self-examination.  (See our list of ‘Twenty-one Listening Tour Questions‘ for ideas.)
  • Each team member commits to talking to five to ten people before the next team meeting.   You may want to divvy up the organization and make sure someone is talking to folks in each department or area.
  • Do it!  Set aside time in your calendar – or better, cancel a less-than-useful meeting and spend the time out in the field/shop.
  • Talk to team-members:  use your best judgment about who to talk to and when.  Make the other person feel comfortable: start with small talk; if necessary, introduce yourself; ask how the person is doing; explain that you’re looking for help and you want to hear the truth.
  • Ask the questions and then listen!  The other person might not answer right away.  It’s okay — let the silence hang.  They may give you a ‘safe’ answer. It’s okay – challenge them to give you more. Whatever they say, respond with, “Thank you… tell me more…. what else?”  Don’t worry about taking notes – just listen.
  • Rinse and repeat.  Be sure to talk to a variety of people in different locations.
  • When the team reconvenes, discuss what you heard, what surprised you and what new questions have come up. Beware the tendency to jump to solutions.  Slow down and make sure you really understand how people think / feel before getting into action.
Why this helps:
  • By asking questions, and listening, you learn what other people are thinking.
  • By having conversations with folks, you develop relationships and open up lines of communication.
  • By asking about specific topics, you raise awareness and focus attention on that issue.  Simply asking the question often leads to a change in the organization.
If you’re part of a leadership team, safety committees and employee engagement councils – any team responsible for influencing the way people think and feel – listening tours are a useful alternative or supplement to employee surveys. Interested in learning more?  Ready to add Listening Tours to your tool kit?  We’re ready to help.  About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at