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005 Michael Henderson Corporate Anthropologist outlines why most employee engagement surveys are question biased rather than listening optimised

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There is a huge amount of money being invested in engagement surveys. Are these surveys effective? Is there a way to make them more effective? My guest today shares lessons learned from other cultures that could improve the entire communication and listening process.

Today, I am speaking to corporate anthropologist Michael Henderson as we explore the jungles of Africa, South America and the boardroom. Michael brings a perspective of listening to cultures. He  shares the role of engagement surveys and how they are question biased rather than listening biased. He also shares lessons learned from the Pygmy people and the three key elements for building a powerful culture

Today’s Topics:

  • Why employee engagement surveys are question biased.
  • Applying skillsets from anthropology into the business world.
  • How the Pygmy people compare culture to a fire.
  • The role of culture inside businesses and being a beacon in the dark.
  • The importance of having three elements throughout cultures.
  • Understanding what is actually meant not what is just said.
  • Patterns and listening to context within corporations and listening to adjectives.
  • Being conscious and listening deeply when people are speaking.

Transcript

Episode 005: Deep Listening with Michael Henderson

Oscar Trimboli: 

Deep Listening. Impact beyond words.

Michael Henderson:      

He took a long pause and then said, “Ah, so culture’s like the fire.” It is, lights the way. It warms the heart, and it keeps at bay the unwanted. And up to this day, I think I’ve never heard a better description in some respects of what culture is actually all about.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Welcome to Deep Listening, impact beyond words. In this episode, we have the opportunity to speak to a corporate anthropologist, Michael Henderson. We get to explore the jungles of Africa, and South America and the jungles that are the boardrooms inside Australia, New Zealand, and the western world. Michael brings a perspective of listening to cultures. I love the way he talks to the role of engagement surveys and the fact that they’re probably wasted money if the surveys aren’t designed by the very people who are filling them in. Listen carefully how he teaches us from the pygmy people the 3K elements of building a powerful culture and listen carefully as you hear the wood crackling in the camp fire when Michael’s talking to the chief. Let’s listen to Michael.

Oscar Trimboli: 

A horrendous amount of money gets invested in these things called engagement surveys and listening tools. Could you talk through the difference between listening and being heard at a systemic level for all employees and what they can learn from ancient cultures?

Michael Henderson:      

Yeah. The big difference, and I couldn’t agree with you more as you’ve kind of hit on one of my hobby horses is I’ve got a real concern about how organisations are using engagement surveys and often surveys in general. There’s nothing wrong with surveys per se, but I think you need to be very, very aware of the context in which the questions are being asked. For example, if you sit around a fire in a traditional culture, the questions that are used around that fire to entertain or to inform or to educate or simply just to connect and share, are always contextual to the people who are asking the questions are in the culture already, and so they are often able to select even the right phrasing of the question to elicit the response that they’re looking for. Whereas you find with the organisational surveys and engagement surveys, the questions are usually generic, not customised. They’re used to design to measuring comparison to other cultures, which anthropologically speaking, is bordering on insane. Because you can’t compare one culture with another in terms of metrics so it seems really bizarre process to go through.

What are the chance of happening is I think the surveys are question-biased rather than listening optimised. What I mean by that is there’s far more emphasis placed on defending or justifying the questions that are being asked, rather than actually really listening to the answers. Let me give you a very practical kind of example. One of the things I’ve notice of the sentence, fairly recently at a conference I was speaking at, the HR manager went on stage just sort of 15 minutes before I was speaking, and sort of said, “Look everybody, I just want to remind you,” and this is a fairly large audience, sort of 800 to 900 people. The HR manager said, “I just want to remind you all that we’ve got the engagement survey coming out next Thursday. It’s really, really important that you all complete the survey so we get an up to date picture of how you’re all feeling about the business and make it a comparison to how we were last year, and also how we’re comparing in the industry. Just reminding you all to do that,” and walked off stage.

Because I was sitting off stage to sort of stage right, I was able to watch the audience’ response to her reminder about the engagement survey and what was fascinating was, and I hope I’m not exaggerating here, I would say over half of the audience rolled their eyes or gave some sort of facial expression that was less than enthusiastic or demonstrating less than full commitment and passion to do the survey. So, I thought, well there you are. You got your survey straight in front of you. About 50 percent of the audience has just demonstrated they’re disengaged by the word engagement survey.

The big thing about the difference between the tribal setting or traditional cultural setting, and to be honest, it doesn’t even need to be traditional tribal, it can be your own family, is that engagement surveys are in the moment. There occurring in constant dialogue and if you’re listening to people’s expressions and their metaphors and their analogies, they’re actually telling you right here and right now whether they’re engaged or not, and more particularly, what are they engaged about.

My final piece on this is I think the world’s best engagement survey would be designed by the employees themselves. I think, in empowering people to ask and design and develop the questions that they want to be asked about the culture would be far more empowering, useful and provide a far deeper listening for the organisation itself to hear what’s really on people’s minds rather than restricting in to what you’ve got in your questions to ask them.

Oscar Trimboli:

Asking people who are part of the culture to design their own surveys, what are great example of deep listening. Michael, you call yourself a corporate anthropologist but where does that journey start?

Michael Henderson:

It starts with the anthropology usually before the corporate and will just explain two words separately, corporate obviously is big business and its many different forms, anthropology is the study of its human culture and it’s a fairly large field of social science that includes everything from musical anthropology to symbology to believe in ritual such become a complex web of understanding and studying human culture. When you put the two together, corporate anthropology is literally taking the skill sets or the perceptions and perspectives from anthropology and applying it into the business world to identify areas and opportunities where organisations can have a better sense of awareness or better sense of anticipation or better opportunity to apply and inspire the workplace cultures that they’re creating inside their organisations.

So, I spend time in Africa and South America and observing and participating around traditional cultures but largely traditional cultures that were the interface of corporate culture or tourism or commercialism. Trying to see where traditional cultures were being impinged, threatened or even just connected to outside cultures and see what the response mechanism was. And that served me really, really well because it enabled me to start to prepare, although I didn’t realise that was what would be coming decades later, but enabled me to start to really understand what is very popular in the marketplace at the moment, is this whole concern around organisations talking about destruction in the marketplace.

Oscar Trimboli:

Have you got a really powerful example from South America or Africa that kind of stands out for you back 30 years ago?

Michael Henderson:

Yeah. There’s one story I tell a lot. It was very privileged. I’ve had some time with the Twa people who you probably know better as the pygmy in Uganda, in Central Africa or in the jungle. I had the opportunity to be invited to sit around the fire one night which I wasn’t aware of at the time. But it’s a great privilege to be invited to sit next to the chief around the fire. It’s just you and him with a sort of separate fire and everyone else gathers around another fire. He just talked around my work and what I was doing, so he was really curious and interested in how I was even here, why I was interested in the tribe, et cetera. Between the two of us, we were attempting to find a common understanding of this kind of concept of culture, which is key to my work and yet in their world, that didn’t really kind of have a word that even captured the essence of culture. They just talked about it as the people. The people do this and the people are this and the people tell this story.

After a little bit of to-ing and fro-ing trying to clarify between the two of us what we meant by culture, he took a long pause and then says, “Ah, so culture’s like the fire. It is lights the way, it warms the heart and it keeps at bay the unwanted.” And up to this day, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better description in some respects of what culture is actually all about. And I still use that reference point today and in the work I’m doing in modern organisations, going “What is your culture doing to light the way and to what extent is it a beacon in the dark to attract others to it, be it employees and customers?” Also, how is your culture signalling to the marketplace that you want certain people to stay away? I still use that reference today and it’s been 30 plus years ago. I just think it’s a really powerful analogy or metaphor, just to kind of keep things very, very simple and look at what the role of culture potentially is doing inside organisations.

Oscar Trimboli:

It’s quite timeless. I’m curious about the role of three things in that, and it’s actually because there are three. For those in the audience, why is it always so much easier to remember just three things? Because that’s kind of transcultural, isn’t it?

Michael Henderson:

Yes and no. It depends… I think in the western cultures, we have a fascination with three because we’re predominantly binary in so much of what we do in our lives. Most of the western education system that people may have gone through comes out of the Greek perspective of life which is logical. So, the Greeks invented logic and fell in love with logic. But logic is almost a limitation, in some respects. It’s incredibly useful, of course, so you can be kind of rational and sequential and feel that you’re making very informed and wise decisions, and at the same time, it’s still a binary kind of operating system. So, what that means is you’re fundamentally dividing the world up into right and wrong, ethical and non-ethical, profitable and non-profitable, productive and unproductive, promoted and not promoted, solved or not solved, bought or not bought, and so on and so forth.

I think the appeal of the three components, element is very attractive to western cultures because this remind us – this can be a little bit more going on with just what we think about and what we’re perceiving so the third element as an open space, an open opportunity to play and even in the topic that you’re masterful around, deep listening. If you think about talking and listening, as we’re both doing this dialogue now, the word that I am most impressed with in the work that you’re doing is not so much the listening, but the deep. That deep is a third component because I’m sure most of your listeners would agree, we spend an awful lot of time in dialogue, in the talking to or talking at or talking with, and also hearing and listening. So, we’re hearing sounds and maybe we’re listening to those sounds and sort of putting more attention on that, but we’re not necessarily unpacking it and going deep. We’re not necessarily reading between the lines or really understanding not what’s said but more what is meant by what is said.

I think there’s this, almost this seduction of the third element that you’ve brought on our attention to here.

Oscar Trimboli:

Michael, as you danced between ancient cultures, eastern cultures, western cultures and then stepping into corporate cultures, listening to context highlights patterns. How do you listen to the context when you go into corporations?

Michael Henderson:

A lot of it is really tuning in to the adjectives that somebody is using. So, the adjectives are almost like road signs in terms of which direction the person is coming from or which direction the person is attempting to go to. By listening to those repeatedly, you can get a sense of potentially the world view, which is sort of an anthropological term but the perspective, I guess, is the other way of saying it. Another element is listening to whether someone feels empowered by what they’re saying or disempowered. Again, by listening very carefully to the language and listening for repeated patterns, and depending on what you’re there for and what the dialogue is focused on, you can either bring that to their awareness and see if that’s a valid way of describing the circumstances or the experience they’ve had. And sometimes it is, in a very valid, very aware of what they’re saying.

Oscar Trimboli:

Michael, it was a joy to learn from you and more importantly, there is about nine things that I was furiously scribbling down that I know the audience is going to love. Michael, thanks so much.

Michael Henderson:      

My pleasure, Oscar. Thank you.

Oscar Trimboli: 

Exploring your role and your judgement and what you bring to the conversation in the dialogue was beautifully illustrated by Michael where he talked about how he fits in to cultures when he comes to listen. I love the way he explored context through patterns, particularly through language patterns and adjectives and how conscious you are when you’re noticing other people speaking. I wonder if you really listen at that level. Because if you do, you can unpick some amazing power in the conversation, not just for you, but for the person you’re speaking with. The person you’re listening to. Ultimately, Michael role modelled beautifully how important making meaning is for many conversations. And that’s in understanding when meaning is at level 5 that the power comes about in a conversation.

A great warning for corporate leaders out there. Don’t go through the motions with engagement surveys. Engagement is built in every moment. It’s in every conversation. Look carefully at the body language that the people you’re talking with are giving back to you. That will tell you better than any survey you’ll ever create how engaged they are.

Thanks for listening to Deep Listening, Impact beyond words.

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