Listening Labs – How to truly listen to the heartbeat of your organization

TLDR : If you want to understand the tone, texture, nuance of your people’s lived experience, surveys and focus groups are not enough. Apply design thinking to organizational listening through Listening Labs.

The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.
Ralph G Nichols

It is the spring of 2021…

Our first Listening Lab is about to start. 11 little boxes slowly appear on zoom. The people on the screen seem to have as much trepidation as I do, not knowing what to expect in a zoom full of strangers. We get to know each other through our origin stories and dive in.

Tell me about your best day at work – a day when you felt on top of the world, felt a sense of achievement, the joy of discovery, felt fulfilled… I ask.

Stories tumble out, heartwarming stories of winning against all odds, and the factors that enabled their triumph.

Tell me about a soul crushing day at work, and what has happened to make it so… I ask.

Stories tumble out. People jump in, adding to each other’s stories. A mountain of insight unravels.

Here is a glimpse at just 3 of the many stories …

Story 1 – Heartbreak and grief

Jane (name changed) looks pensive, debating whether to share her intensely personal story. She takes a deep breath. There is pin drop silence as she tells her story.

She shares her joy at discovering that she is pregnant – the elation, the relief and the hope. They have long prayed for this moment. Even the toxic environment waiting for her back in office can’t steal her joy.

Then the unthinkable happens. She is in office when she feels there is something very wrong. Heartbreakingly, she has a miscarriage.

Every single person on the zoom is welling up with tears, at this point. As Jane completes her story, one after another, some of the other women share their story of miscarriage while at work, the grief and the aftermath, how difficult it is to talk about – the loss, the sense of guilt and the mental health challenges, how they struggled to get support from their leaders and colleagues. One woman even talked about an ‘underground network’ of women, in her organization, who had come together based on their shared tragic experience. They supported each other, while their organization and leaders knew nothing about it.

Jane’s courage in sharing her story, and her resilience through her journey of grieving and healing prompted others to share their stories of devastating loss and grief.


What was clear from all these stories is …

how we inadvertently create environments that cause harm, and
how ill equipped our leaders and teams are to support grief and healing.

Dealing with grief, loss and adversity is an obvious but invisible and unaddressed reality in our workplace.

No wonder 75-90% employees across different countries don’t believe their manager supports them when times get tough.

Story 2 – The juxtaposition of work and life existing in the same space at the same time

A beautiful Sunday evening, Emma’s (name changed) toddler is running about, her family is in from out of town, yet she can barely muster a smile. Her heart sinks by the minute with the impending doom of monday. She sneaks off, to look at her calendar, hoping against hope that some meetings have been cancelled. But they haven’t. Her week, color coded an angry red, is a blur of meaningless meetings, and unnecessary deadlines. She sighs heavily, knowing that she is going on have to put in double the hours to do the actual work to grow the business. She shakes herself out of her Sunday night blues and prepares for Monday.

Her first meeting is one that could’ve just been an email. She hears her daughter in the other room, giggling incessantly. Seems like her family is having a whale of a time… without her.

She wonders if this is worth it.

Emma’s story took us to the moment she was making the decision to attend the call, versus run to her toddler. We were right there in the room with her, we could see how important it was to her, the internal struggle as she made the decision, and the toll that it took on her.

You can’t help but feel the futility of the meeting, and the terrible cost of choosing the pointless over the meaningful.


What is clear from Emma’s story is …

An obvious but invisible reality – people put aside something important in their lives, to show up at work,
To choose work OVER that ‘important thing’, it has to have meaning beyond just pay.

Story 3 : Mastery not mediocrity

Eli (name changed) is a scientist. He loves being a scientist. It is all he’s ever wanted to do. He is recognized as an innovator, and is sought after. He works for an organization that has a culture of ‘up or out’. He feels under pressure to move to the ‘managerial’ track and constantly seek larger roles. As he climbs the corporate ladder, he finds himself doing less and less of the work he truly loves.

One day, he looks around and realizes that he is stuck. His peers in other functions keep moving up, while he can’t. He feels judged by his peers, and worries that they see him as a loser. He is deeply unhappy.

Frustrated with unfulfilling work, an unhealthily competitive environment, and feeling insecure, vulnerable and like he doesn’t belong, he leaves.

Eli’s story resonates with everyone, but especially with our 50+ age group. They jump in with their stories…and questions. They feel forgotten. They know their strengths and the impact they can have, and want a career built around their unique strengths, rather than be pressured to fit into standard paths or roles.


What is clear from Eli’s story is…

An obvious but invisible reality – there is inadequate focus on career planning for our most experienced and often, most effective employees. They are often the shoulders that high potentials stand on, but are invisible themselves.
A one-size-fits-all career plan, typically built for early career professionals, is neither relevant nor effective for everyone. Imagine the loss of value from underutilizing this depth of talent at their peak effectiveness.

What is a Listening Lab?

Listening Lab is a methodology we designed to understand the human experience through stories, and unravel the key drivers emerging from these stories. We use a blend of Appreciative Inquiry, Storytelling, Active Listening and Root Cause Diagnosis to gather deep insights.

What sets these conversations apart?

Quantitative and qualitative tools for feedback are very effective in certain contexts, but quite limited in understanding the complexity of the human experience at work.

If our goal is to truly inspire and engage our people, then we have to dig deeper for the insights that help do that.

The Iceberg of Organizational Listening created by Just Human

Think of it as an iceberg.

  • Surveys help you see the top of the iceberg,
  • Focus groups help you see the area where the iceberg meets the water and sometimes you get a glimpse of deeper insights,
  • Listening Labs help you see beneath the surface, where the deep mysterious ocean swirls unpredictably

Why do Listening Labs work better?

I’ve done hundreds of surveys, and focus groups in my career, but nothing could’ve prepare me for the quality of conversation in a Listening Lab. Here’s why.

Listening Labs help us:

See the whole human

Work-life integration has become more of a norm, as the lines between work and life blurred. This has created the impetus to embrace the complexity of the whole human being at work, if we want people to be at their best and thrive.

The last 2 years gave us a unique window into our colleagues lives, their challenges and joys. Who we are, at home and at work, have never been more blended, than they are today.

The future of work has to be centered around the whole human:

Integrality between their physical, emotional, mental and spiritual intelligences,
Integration between their work and life, and
Intersectionality by harnessing the uniqueness of their lived experiences and backgrounds.

See the human behind the number

We were among the very first to predict the Great Resignation, the Great Renegotiation of the rules of work, and the strength of that battle. We predicted that people were on a quest for not just flexibility but also autonomy and meaning and wanted to reimagine work.

Our predictions were more accurate because we relied on Listening Labs. Narrowly focused surveys could not access the same richness of insights. Here is how it played out.

It is spring of 2021. Survey after survey focuses on the number of days that people want to be in office versus not, and the number of days CEOs want their people in the office. Their obsession with the NUMBER of days people work from home versus office is just baffling. They seem to be equate flexibility with location.

They are missing the point…completely.

They are asking the wrong questions.

2 things are obvious from their questions :

they see flexibility as a benefit
their narrow questions seem to originate from a biased paternalistic view of the world of work, rather than research.

The stories of people I speak to everyday seemed to have no voice in their narrow ‘research’. That is why we started Listening Labs.

“Do I go hug my toddler who is laughing uncontrollably or do I attend this mindless meeting?”

“Do I care for my sick child, or do I spend an hour in traffic getting to office, when I could do the same work at home”

“Can I just be there for my elderly parents in an emergency, or do I attend this in person seminar?”

Our lives are full of hundreds of trade-offs we make everyday, to show up at work.

Those trade offs come at a cost – a cost to our mental health, relationships and quality of life.

The collective epiphany that people had during the pandemic is that on our death bed, our regrets are going to be about the time we could’ve spent with our loved ones.

3 things are obvious from our Listening Labs:

People see flexibility as a performance enabler and enhancer, NOT just a benefit
People want their organizations to reimagine work, in a way that maximizes impact AND fits better into their lives.
People want their employers to understand their lived experiences, to understand the true weight of the choices they have to make.

Apply Design Thinking to Organizational Listening

Think Apple. They are notorious for not seeking consumer feedback. Yet their designs are as awe inspiring as they are intuitive. It is Apple’s focus on how a consumer experiences, plays with or uses their product, rather than just what they say about it, that differentiates them.

Let’s apply this to listening.

Surveys are great for superficial feedback at scale.

Focus groups are great for insightful feedback based on intellectual reflection.

Listening Labs are great for insights about the human experience at work, the dynamics and the complexity.

The solutions we build are drastically different based on the data and insights from the 3 methodologies above.

Surveys – the insights focused on flexibility as a benefit and the ‘magic’ number of days that would appease people. This led to solutions focused on the number of days in office, and the ensuing ultimatums, and drive to ‘return-to-office’, without any clarity of why.
Focus groups – the insights focused on pain points, too many meetings, work overload, burnout etc. It led to a suite of solutions, mental health days, breaks, EAP services, etc. These did not address the root cause – the work, how it gets done, and the leadership.
Listening Labs – the insights focus on the employee experience at work. It led us to address the root causes, and create a solution that reimagines work, reinvents collaboration and renews cohesion to truly unlock human energy and potential.

When are Listening Labs most effective?

In my experience Listening Labs are most effective when you need to unearth deep insights.

This can be in business transformations, culture transformations, large scale change, organization pivot, enrolling people on a new strategy, or stretch business goals.

It works especially well when we can engage the participants of a lab in the change journey through pilots, task forces, experimenting, trying and co creating the future.

Want to know more about Listening Labs? Schedule a call with us.

Want to check out more insights from our Listening Labs. Check out The Human Future of Work Report .

Learn more about our work on Culture & Values here.

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Disclaimer : The names in the stories have been fictionalized and anonymized.

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