by Gael O’Brien

CEOs not actively listening to employees’ high expectations for leaders (and the role employees see for themselves) will forfeit the fragile trust they have. Millions of employees have recently quit jobs amid the COVID pandemic, giving up on their companies and leaders. Many employees who’ve stayed feel empowered to be workplace activists and expect their CEO to play a strong societal role, which many haven’t yet.

The need for trust increases. Business became the most trusted institution globally last year, according to the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer; employee activism is expected to increase in 2022. In the United States, 72 percent of employees surveyed agree with the statement: “My employer is a mainstay of trust” (down 2 percent from 2020). But if 63 percent globally can only say they’re “more likely to trust my employer CEO” over other CEOs, it’s a warning sign. “CEOs are either responsible for trust or accountable for it,” according to 73 percent of business leaders. There’s more they can do to build trust in our changing landscape.

Active listening plays a key role in fostering trust. CEOs might argue they have excellent listening skills and are all about trust. And yet, given work overload, how they listen determines whether trust can grow where it’s needed most. CEOs, through focused listening skills, have the potential to foster how trust and connection shape a culture supporting differences and strong collaboration

Changing landscape

Additional surveys conducted by Edelman in 2020 and 2021 identify expectations for CEOs and levels of employee activism that shift the landscape. Employees are now “the most important stakeholder to a company’s achieving long-term success,” according to consumer, employee and investor respondents.

Consumers (68 percent) and employees (62 percent) expect a seat at the table, agreeing  that they “have the power to force corporations to change.” Fifty percent of those employed agree that “I am more likely now than a year ago to voice my objections to management or engage in workplace protest.”

Belief-driven employees (identified based on the role that values, social issue opinions and other factors played in their employer choices) are more loyal and purpose-driven.

  • 83 percent are more likely to engage in workplace activism versus 65 percent of nonbelief-driven employees.
  • 65 percent expect their company would stop certain business practices if employees objected. If not, 76 percent say, “I will take action to produce or motivate urgently necessary changes within my organization.” 58 percent would work within the company to create change; 40 percent would make their concerns public.

CEO activism expected

The pandemic created a sense of heightened urgency about increased inequities around the world. Survey respondents expect CEOs to take on a greater societal role to make things right, including:

  • Speaking out on key societal issues like the pandemic’s impact, job automation and local community issues (86 percent);
  • Stepping in when government doesn’t fix societal problems (68 percent);
  • Taking the lead on change before government imposes it (66 percent); and
  • Holding themselves accountable to the public, not just to the board of directors and stockholders (65 percent).

These expectations speak to what a company is willing to stand for. It’s a relevant topic for employees, CEOs and ultimately the board. Not every issue can be undertaken. However, employees need a forum to be heard by the CEO on the issues that matter to them, making their case and suggesting a plan. If what’s proposed, after consideration can’t be done and the reason why is explained, more discussion and alternatives may address concerns. Companies’ role in social issues runs the gamut from corporate donations to part of a company’s DNA.

A too-long incubation

Whether companies should speak out on societal issues continues to be controversial. Recently, Fortune raised this subject and asked  Fortune 500 CEOs to indicate which statement they most agreed:

“CEOs have a responsibility to speak out on important social and political issues and should continue to do so;” or

“CEOs have recently gotten too involved in commenting on social and political issues and need to pull back.”

The survey result: a tie, spilt pretty evenly at 50-50.

I wrote here five years ago about CEOs taking stands. It’s time to decide. It matters to employees what a company is willing to stand for; they want to be part of the conversation.

The wisdom of listening

Whether CEOs are meeting with activist employees flexing their expectations or anyone else, the discipline of “active listening” creates connection that supports trust. Psychologist Carl Rogers, who co-founded the technique, described it 65 years ago, saying it “requires that we get inside the speaker, that we grasp, from his point of view, just what it is he is communicating to us. More than that, we must convey to the speaker that we are seeing things from his point of view.”

We know that disciplined focus isn’t easy. And yet, CEOs and the rest of us know how it feels when someone is listening to us with full attention, no multi-tasking. Nonetheless, CEOs and others believe we can still listen carefully while we skim an email. It’s easy to become overconfident about listening skills, masking us from seeing it’s time to return to the basics.

There’s no shortage of publications to support the process. What Companies Want Most in a CEO: A Good Listener identifies key skills: actively listening to others; empathizing genuinely with others’ experiences; persuading people to work toward a common goal; and communicating clearly. The problem, as How to Really Listen to Your Employees explains, is: “If you believe you have all the answers, you simply have no reason to listen to others.”

Are You Really Listening? elaborates on seven steps to help CEOs break from what’s gotten in the way of their listening. Some include:

  • Protect against blind spots — making it safe for team members to challenge the CEO;
  • De-emphasize hierarchy – ensuring CEO approachability;
  • Create an early-warning system – “If you have bad news, text me; if you have good news, share it with me in person;” and
  • Actively seek input – connecting with people every way possible to pick up signals and encourage employees to share what they’re thinking.

A new book, You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, shares an insight easily 50 years old and still relevant: “When engaged in any kind of dispute the father of listening studies, Ralph Nichols, advised listening for evidence that you might be wrong, rather than listening to poke holes in the other person’s argument….”

This is a new era, but it’s populated with old problems that haven’t yet found their way to resolution. Collaboration can be hard, but we know it’s usually the best and most long-lasting solution. How activism plays out will be determined by how transparent and accountable the CEO’s team is and how the culture supports diverse views finding alignment.

Employee power isn’t just about walk offs, protests, boycotts and generating bad press. It’s about persuading with passion, out of deep caring, that their company make ethical decisions. It’s expectations around what they’ll be able to contribute as a group and as the number one stakeholder, and how they’ll be included and treated. Companies not open to employee voices will find power expressed in people quitting or becoming disengaged. For CEOs the wisdom of listening can be the power of trust helping people work toward a common goal.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, on the Advisory Board of the Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.


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