There are few things more disheartening and annoying than being ignored. 

Imagine, dear reader, you are in a conversation. You are holding forth, with passion and wit, making a well-reasoned and succinct point, on the influence of the German expressionists on 1930s Hollywood, or your preferred campsites in the Lake District, for example.

You look across to your conversational partner, and see them yawning and drawing a picture of a mouse in clogs on the edge of a newspaper they a holding.

“What do you think?” you ask, only to be met with a vacant stare and a mumbled “sorry, what?”

How do you feel? Angry? Upset? Bitter? Do you feel like carrying on with that conversation? I’m guessing not.

And would you be the other person? Are you in the habit of ignoring people who are talking with you? Of course not, you are a reasonable and civilised human being, and understand your role in the social contract which surrounds the conversation. You talk, and listen, in order to get some benefit from the conversation.

If you are a leader or manager in an organisation, however, there is a very real chance you  do the equivalent of doodling a mouse with clogs on repeatedly during conversations.

How? Well, if your organisation has an employee survey and you do nothing with the results, then you are doodling said mouse on a newspaper in front of everyone who completed that survey.

Because a survey is a great example of giving employees a voice, a fundamental driver of engagement. By sending it out, you are, whether you like it or not, striking up a conversation. You are asking people what they think. If you asked an individual standing in front of you what they think, you wouldn’t ignore them, would you? Neither should you when you send out a survey.

I’ve blogged previously on the importance of not only doing things in response to surveys, but also telling people what you have done, and reminding them why you did it, so I’ll just remind you that this is really, really important and have a think about other ways of giving employees a voice.

For me, the most important way for an employee to use their voice is in their conversations with their line manager. The best conversations I’ve had with managers have always been about my development and how to do things differently, rather than what I’ve done.

This would start with the objective-setting conversation, where 15 minutes would be spent agreeing what needed to be done, and the rest of the time discussing what I needed to do to be able to deliver them, what new skills, capabilities or behaviours I needed.

In subsequent one-to-ones, the conversation would be about this how, with little time spent on the what.

In good team meetings, we would discuss our team performance against objectives, the organisational performance, often from an “official” corporate briefing document, and have a conversation about that, with feedback going back up the line. There would also be development activity, where we learned as a team to work better together to deliver what we needed to do.

In all those examples there is a common theme – the use of employee voice. Meetings are not tell and listen, they are always conversations, two-way, with information and opinions shared, talked over and something new taken away by both sides.

This, as I say, is the best. Not all meetings have been anything like that quality. In one organisation I was a manager and got sent on an appraisal course, where I learned the basics of appraisal, and the importance of cascading objectives. I got back to the office and my boss told me to go and appraise people. I explained I needed my appraisal first, so I could cascade objectives and have a context for the conversation.

“I haven’t been on the course,” said my boss. “You can do it without having your appraisal.”

So I did, but I can’t imagine anyone got very much out of them. The company did, however, tick a box which said “has staff appraisal system in place” and duly earned Investors In People status, an irony akin to Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel Peace Prize (hat-tip there to the great Tom Lehrer. You should all go out and listen to him. A great and wise man).

Any road up, bad meetings aren’t conversations, but one where the team sit and listen while being told what to do.

Now, in some, probably many organisations, people may not feel safe in speaking up. The recent headlines about the scandals in the NHS and Banking are indicative of cultures where speaking out was considered unsafe or ineffective, speak up and you are ignored or, worse, disciplined or sacked.

How do you give the employee their voice in these organisations, where they are probably needed more than elsewhere? 

A survey is a good place to start, as they are often anonymous. A helpline or whistle-blower line can also help.

Managerless meetings can be used – I have seen them used effectively. In these teams meet and minutes are taken anonymously, then fed through a trusted intermediary to management (usually a couple of levels higher than the team manager).

Trade unions and their alternatives, the staff councils and forums, are immeasurably valuable in this field, as well, as long as they are credible.

All these ideas can work, but only if management listen and respond. Even of what employees put forward is unworkable or impossible, take the time to respond, explain why it is unworkable or impossible. At least the employee knows their voice has been heard, they have been listened to. At best, the conversation could provide a new insight or innovation; what you thought was impossible turns out to be, in fact, possible.

Having your say is great, but it is not enough; someone has to listen to that voice, and respond, in order to engage in a conversation. Because if you speak and are not hearer, sooner or later you are going to stop speaking.

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