Echoes in the storm: leading with listening in an era of disruption

Remesh is a Business Reporter client.

In the past five years, our world has changed in ways we couldn’t have imagined. We’ve faced the challenges of Covid-19, which has changed how we live and work. New tech, such as generative AI, is transforming our businesses, while powerful cultural movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have prompted deep reflections on fairness and justice. This melding of sociopolitical and technological shifts urges us to rethink our roles as business leaders. It beckons for leadership strategies that equip our businesses to navigate the unpredictable waters of relentless change.

During these tumultuous times, leaders find themselves at a crossroads: actively foster connection, or embrace isolation? Sometimes we can become overwhelmed by the pace of change in the world today, and retreat in the hopes of finding safety. And that’s natural – a lot of us have learned to find a false sense of safety in relying entirely on our own abilities, at the exclusion of others.

Yet this can lead to critical missteps because it detaches you from on-the-ground realities. More and more, I see CEOs become overly narrow in their decision making, almost as if they are in a panicked state. They choose to withhold essential information, resulting in their teams struggling to see the throughline of their decisions, which leads to poorer company performance.

In contrast, involvement leads to commitment. Leaders who foster open dialogue and actively pursue feedback and connection often discover strategies for their organisations to be more resilient. Effective communication across all levels ensures those organisations remain agile and robust amid the chaos.

In 2023 alone, nearly 500 US businesses filed for bankruptcy, surpassing the numbers from both 2022 and 2021. Moreover, over 1,000 companies laid off more than 200,000 employees, a 45 per cent increase year over year. These troubling statistics highlight the profound challenges businesses and their employees face every day.

These situations are popping up everywhere. While this may be a truth you hear constantly in today’s world, this point needs to be emphasised and intuitively understood: the era of top-down decision making at the expense of employees, or Theory X management, where senior leaders operate in silos, is fast becoming obsolete. It’s a strategy out of touch with current realities. Moreover, it severely diminishes the potential of your most valuable competitive advantage: your people.

To illustrate the power of listening, pretend you have been involved in a shipwreck. Waves towering over you like mountains, pushing the ship in directions that are out of your control. To survive in such a dire situation, what do you do? All your training and experience are hard to pull from if you have never found yourself in a situation like this.

In any disorienting event, where our previous understandings are nullified and thrust us into unchartered territory, our past training and experiences might seem distant or irrelevant. In such critical moments we have learned that the power of listening and communication is a leader’s shining beacon of hope. Directly connecting with employees or people on the front lines offers a lifeline. It’s through real-time exchange of information and insights that we can adapt to the fluidity of the situation, using the collective intelligence to help navigate these tumultuous scenarios.

But listening is more than a survival tactic; it’s a strategy for flourishing. And it all starts by understanding the type of leader you wish to be and the kind of organisation you aspire to shape.

The need for nimble and responsive employee listening tools

Many organisations have some form of listening method, the most common being the employee survey. Yet, there is still a need for a more nimble and nuanced understanding of on-the-ground realities. Tools that offer swift deployment, immediate analysis, and actionable insights will have the most impact.

This is where tech innovations, such as the AI-powered Remesh platform, can become invaluable. Leaders can initiate live conversations with large employee groups or dive deep with asynchronous surveys, ensuring the organisation’s collective voice is truly heard with a few clicks of a button. A common gripe among employees about traditional feedback methods is lack of action post-feedback. Their valuable insights seem to dissipate without noticeable change or acknowledgment. This can erode trust and dampen morale. As one of the forefathers of employee motivation at work, M S Vitales, once said, “An attitude survey is like a hand grenade – once you pull the pin, you have to do something with it. Otherwise, it may hurt you rather than help you.”

Ensuring anonymity and psychological safety in feedback collection

One element we are seeing become increasingly important when soliciting genuine feedback is anonymity and psychological safety. While this approach has clear trade-offs, your research question and surrounding context should dictate your method. Understandably, when trying to tap into an employee’s sensitive, nuanced and unadulterated experience, it makes sense they will prioritise aspects such as anonymity and safety. Platforms such as Remesh excel in this domain, offering anonymous data collection and ensuring genuine, candid feedback.

The impact of AI tools in action

A leading global consultancy identified the need to understand the experiences of female employees for an international client. Traditional methods, though reliable, were cumbersome. Using Remesh, the consultancy hosted three sessions spanning nine countries, amassing invaluable insights in just hours. The platform’s inherent anonymity empowered these women to share their experiences candidly, highlighting barriers to advancement and perceived male-dominated leadership.

To lead effectively, consider these steps

Develop a shared leadership identity: reflect on your current leadership style, the leader you aspire to be, and your core values. Understand that circumstances often reveal one’s true character.

Democratise the employee voice: collaborate with employees, recognising the unique insights each group brings. Use tools such as Remesh to decentralise listening responsibilities, fostering greater involvement and commitment.

Evolve with changing times: while planning is essential, it’s crucial to stay adaptable and open-minded in your listening strategy. Even incremental progress is good progress. Having a clear purpose and remaining flexible in your approach can lead to more effective outcomes, ensuring that your actions always serve your overarching goals.

If organisations want to move from a survival state to a thriving state, it’s become clear that they need to prioritise their people. Their insights, their commitment and their innovations will be the beacons that guide us through these unique times. Let’s not underestimate the power of listening: it’s more than a soft skill. It’s a strategic imperative.

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Anthony W Caputo is Remesh’s Chief People & Operating Officer. At Remesh, Anthony built the people and operations departments to oversee all aspects of talent acquisition, retention and engagement. He is specifically responsible for strategic people initiatives, including managing the employee experience across the employee lifecycle, employer branding, organisational planning and design, and developing the employee value proposition. He also is a trusted advisor to the CEO on all elements of organisational problem solving and strategy.

Before joining Remesh, Anthony was a principal consultant at Mercer|Sirota, a management consulting firm. At Mercer|Sirota, he was involved in various research projects and product development initiatives. His primary clients were global and Fortune 500 companies in the technology industry. In his later years, Anthony helped to lead the firm through an acquisition.

Before joining Mercer, Anthony worked with the United Nations’ Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in the North America Office, where he primarily worked on developing a roster-type recruitment system. He has also held roles at Columbia Business School’s Behavioral Research Lab and The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), where he internally published the commission’s Employee Sponsorship Program within the New York District Office.

Anthony has a Master of Arts in social-organisational psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University and a Bachelor of Arts from Seton Hall University, where he currently serves as an adjunct professor of industrial-organisational psychology.


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