Driving culture by listening – not telling

Today, there’s a big spotlight on company culture and what business leaders are doing to improve it.

One of the key reasons for this is a lack of employee engagement, with research showing that only 32% of full- and part-time employees are engaged.

For me, this is rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives positive culture. And if business leaders are going to change this, then they need to stop telling and start listening.

Defining employee engagement: What does it mean to the experts?

The employee engagement gap: From debate to action

Listening is an underused and undervalued skill

The rising value of the ‘people agenda’

Workplace culture could mean anything from a ping pong table to a learning and development programme.

But what is helping the transition to the latter is the fact that the ‘people agenda’ is becoming more strategic, and leaders are taking more notice of the clear link between employee engagement and performance.

The challenge lies in understanding what feeling happy and engaged means.

Leaders today should be mindful that employee experience is not a one-size-fits-all, and that companies need to be able to cater to different people with different needs. The first step in understanding this? Listening.

Engage with people as a whole

Every leader should have a sense of where their employees are in terms of their relationship to the company and what they need to feel more included and to perform better.

Of course, every employee is unique and leaders should approach understanding this with curiosity, not judgement.

By recognising culture building not just as a listening exercise but as a learning one, leaders will soon better understand their people as a whole.

The majority of us will be familiar with building a product or a service for an audience: you start with the user and the need you are trying to solve. The same goes for engagement and by starting with the user (your employee) you can design an experience that solves their need.

Set the conditions for culture – but allow it to evolve

Culture constantly evolves and, while leaders should embrace this, they should also try to influence its direction. For instance, every business should have a good idea of ‘the why’ behind its culture strategy.

Are they driving culture to optimise their business for retention, career progression or for another reason? Whatever the answer, knowing your cultural ‘bets’ is key to who you attract.

Leaders should also consider the role of AI in the workplace and how it can be used to automate tasks and streamline work. This isn’t about reducing the ‘people function’ in your team, but about getting more human work from your humans.

There’s a lot more to a job than data and tasks, and leaders should learn from their employees in order to create the right framework around them.

Understand that asking questions is a skill

Listening more to your employees means facilitating some meaningful conversations – something that demands a lot of effort from leaders. If there was a big red ‘culture’ button then we would have pressed it by now.

Creating an environment where you can actively listen requires being good at asking the right questions and then allowing the space for the conversations that follow. Crucially though, think about what’s being heard when you kick them off.

If you’re reluctant to talk about culture and treat it like it’s the last thing you want to do, then this will inevitably come across.

Don’t take how you treat people for granted

To create a culture where people thrive and perform, individuals must be treated as humans and not employees.

By catering closer to their needs, a culture will develop with authenticity at its core, where each person can bring their whole self at work.

Today, with such a growing emphasis on working culture, it’s easier than ever for employees to identify poor leaders. But listening is how to overcome this. Leaders are cultural carriers, so to find yours, look for good listeners and then give them everything they need to build the company your people dream of.


Fie Fisker is people and culture domain lead at Pleo