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In this episode of Deep Listening – Impact beyond words, we listen to Jenni Field, an international business communications strategist.
Jenni helps organisations to get teams to work together better and review how operations can work more effectively.
Jenni worked as a Communications Director for a global pharmaceutical business and Global Head of Communications for a FTSE 250 hospitality business.
It is this experience that contributed to the development of The Field Model™ and her book, Influential Internal Communication
Learn the difference between what an executive says and means when they say value.
How do you think about the frequency of listening and communicating your actions will be as an organisation?
If you would like a copy of Jenni’s book Influential Internal Communication: Streamline Your Corporate Communication to Drive Efficiency and Engagement
We are gifting 3 copies of the book, send an email to podcast at oscar trimboli dot com with the subject line The Field Model and what you took from this episode into your workplace.
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Influential Internal Communication will streamline any organisation’s internal communication practices and help drive employee engagement, efficiency and profit.
The book is based on The Field Model™ and draws on research with CEOs and the best insights into people, organisations and chaos.
The theory is backed up with data and statistics from industry reports on workplace culture and real-world case studies, showing how chaos can impact a range of organisations of varying size and industries.
Oscar Trimboli: In this episode of Deep Listening: Impact Beyond Words, we listen to Jenni Field, an international business communications strategist. Jenni helps organizations and their teams work better together. Jenni’s been a communications director for a global pharmaceutical company, as well as Head of Global Communications for FTSE 250 hospitality business. It’s this experience that has contributed to the development of The Field Model and her book, Influential Internal Communication.
Today, we explore the role of employee surveys and the difference between hearing and listening. The difference between hearing and listening is taking action. And when it comes to employee surveys, one thing I notice is, organizations fine-tune the collection of information. They have a rigorous and scientific approach to how they collect the information. They measure the number of responses on a very regular basis, and they communicate about the progress of what percentage of people have completed the survey.
All the effort is put into the collection, the hearing, and very little is put into the listening and the action.
I often say to leaders, “Please stop surveying your staff. Go back, read the last three surveys, create a plan, and implement the plan. Implement what your employees have asked you to do in the previous surveys, before you create another one.”
Jenni’s significant multi-decade global experience, helping leaders, CEOs, and boards work with their communication strategy, especially when it comes to communicating with, to, and for their staff.
Listen how, Jenni discovers the difference in a conversation with her CEO about the difference between value and risk. Let’s listen to Jenni.
What’s the cost of not listening?
Jenni Field: Not understanding – that’s such a huge cost. If you don’t listen, then you are solving probably your own problem, but not that of the person that’s talking.
I remember sitting in boardrooms when I used to work in organizations, and I had to physically put my hand over my mouth, as my way to stop myself from speaking, because I have a natural want to fix and help.
So, you’d often find me in a meeting just with my hand over my mouth, to stop me from doing it. And that was very intentional on my part because I knew I had to get better at listening. And, so, I needed something that was quite physical to stop me from jumping to help.
And I probably still do it now a little bit. You’ll just randomly see me, hand over my mouth, and that’s because I’m really trying to listen and stop, and not jump in with something that might help.
Oscar Trimboli: Have you got a story that brings the cost of not listening to life?
Jenni Field: I think about situations I’ve been in, where I’ve been trying to maybe influence leaders or persuade leaders to maybe think differently about something. And in particular, that’s often about employee engagement or internal communication.
And I remember trying to convince a CEO that it was really important that we invested in it and that we spent time communicating with people, which, in my world, do you think I can’t believe I’ve got to convince someone of this? But you do.
And I was trying everything, based on what I was, I suppose, sort of listening and observing of that person.
They were very data-driven. They were very focused on the financials. So, I was trying to find all the ways of telling my story to match that.
And, actually, what I needed to do, and what I did do, was go and have a conversation when I started to really listen to the language that they used.
So, when they talked about value, which they talked about a lot, to every function in the business, “What value does it bring? What value does it bring?” And I suddenly thought, after probably three months, “Maybe I need to ask the question about, ‘What value do you see in communications?’ because that’s obviously what they talk about the most.”
And I went in and said, “Look, can I just ask you what you mean by value, when it comes to communications?”
And they said, “It’s about risk. That’s what I see you’re here to do.”
And I thought, I hadn’t looked at it from that perspective at all because I was just listening to everything that was around me. I wasn’t being maybe that direct.
So, once I understood that, I could change my story and my reasoning to be linked to risk, which unlocked a huge amount of opportunity for me to really drive their communication strategy and employee engagement strategy forward. So, just having that time to ask that question unlocked everything else.
When you think about the cost of not listening, it was three months of really hard work, trying to get something through, whereas, actually, I probably didn’t need to spend that three months. Had I really listened to their language and how they spoke, I probably could have unlocked things a lot sooner.
Oscar Trimboli: When it comes to listening, where are examples where people get it so wrong in organizations, Jenni?
Jenni Field: What’s interesting for me is, certainly, if I look at 2020 and 2021, there seems to have been quite a lot of listening.
And I talked a lot in … at the end of 2021 and early 2022, about the fact that we haven’t really taken much action, and that’s where it starts to go wrong. And I think we can be very good at wanting to listen and having absolutely the best intentions to listen, but actually, not the infrastructure or the processes that allow us to take action. And that’s where things start to break down.
And I remember from, again, my time working in an organization, where I don’t think we did an employee engagement survey for about three years because the HR director said, “There’s little point in doing it because everything people are annoyed about are things we can’t change. So, it’s just better to not ask.”
Now, not saying I subscribe to that view, but I applaud the reality of, we can’t change those things because that’s run by a third party, and it’s outside our control. I do appreciate that, but I always think, you have to listen.
And we also get it wrong, where we try and do these really big engagement surveys once a year, and then have a big program of work. And that’s where it gets really painful, where you are just doing this once a year, we’ve got a big program of work, and it’s not addressing some of the real issues that people have, because it doesn’t delve into that … in that sort of depth, the survey. You just can’t really get there.
Where it’s done badly or where it’s done very well is where you haven’t got action being taken on the back of it.
You’re doing it probably once a year and, therefore, that’s just not enough, in terms of frequency. And you’re also not really listening because a survey on its own is not enough for me, to really be listening to what actually you want to be able to fix.
Oscar Trimboli: We say, surveys are hearing, and leadership is listening. The difference between hearing and listening is action.
Many people that we work with, I will ask them, “Have you got an action plan? Great. Have you communicated that action plan to the people who responded to the survey?”
And the people who do get the action plan part right, they don’t get the second part right, the consistent communication that goes back and talks to the progress that they’re making on plan.
I’m speculating, though, that your reference to the annual survey may imply that maybe shorter, maybe not as involved, surveys may be more effective or more relevant for staff? How do you align that with the organizational pace?
Jenni Field: There always has to be a reason for doing the survey, and sometimes where we fall down is that, you fall into this trap of that, “We must do an employee engagement survey every year,” without really any kind of hypothesis to prove or disprove, “What are the symptoms that we’re seeing that a survey might help us prove or disprove, as a starting point?”
And yes, it is about the frequency, but it’s about being purposeful about the survey. You can’t just do pulse surveys every month because, if you’re not going to do anything with it, people will just get very bored and will then probably answer in different ways to see if you do something with it because that becomes more entertaining, as an employee.
Oscar Trimboli: Mm-hmm.
Jenni Field: The frequency has to come down to what matches the rhythm of your organization. And I talk about the rhythm of organizations a lot because everyone is different, and how things work operationally is different for everybody. So, it might be that there’s a lot of change going on and, therefore, you want to use surveys, short surveys, in a way to check whether people know things and check if they know it as well.
When we’ve done digital change, we’ll often use polls and things like that, to help us understand whether people know and that new functionality and things like that. But it’s always very purposeful.
Doing things monthly, doing things quarterly, is probably more beneficial, but there has to be a purpose. I wouldn’t want someone to listen to this and think, “Oh, I must start doing monthly surveys,” because that’s not the solution.
It has to be, why? What are you trying to achieve? What are you trying to listen for, to then take action on?
Where’s your organization, in terms of growth or change or whatever it might be? That’s really got to be the starting point to determine your frequency.
If you’re just doing an annual survey once a year, and there isn’t any other opportunity for listening and, therefore, conversation, then that’s probably not going to be enough for you to get true employee engagement.
Oscar Trimboli: The survey is a very formal, almost formulaic approach, to listening, from an internal communications point of view. I’m curious on your perspective of just having conversations.
I was talking to an organization, and I said, “Go and have recruitment interviews with every one of your staff.” “Oscar, they’ve already joined. Why are we recruiting them?” “Their perspectives may have changed since they joined the organization.”
And they went through a series of one-on-one conversations.
They did 50 of them. They were quite deliberate. They were kind of spot fires all across the organization, and they spread themselves out.
Jenni, I’m curious, when you go and do these one-on-one conversations, how do you bring structure, discipline, and purpose to those conversations, so they make a difference?
Jenni Field: I’m much more of a fan of one-to-one conversations and, actually, in the organizations that I work with, if they’re going through significant change, I don’t do a survey. It’s always one-to-one conversations, because you just get such richer data from that because you’re actively listening with them.
There’s always a structure of, I usually have five to 10 questions that are designed, based on the symptoms that the organization is seeing.
So, if an organization’s seeing people going off with stress. We’ve got some issues maybe at a leadership level of things not really working how they need to. There’s quite maybe high growth. There could be lots of things going on, that’s contributing to people not really enjoying being there.
Then, I would have five to 10 questions. And the environment is really important for me. It’s making sure it’s a quiet space. It’s just you and them. It’s not a formal sitting with a desk. It’s everything about that conversation has to be set up to make people feel very comfortable with you.
And people talk to me, that they’re saying, “This is great. I’m really getting stuff off my chest.” I’ve had people bang tables.
And that’s what I’m listening for. I’m listening for all of those things, not just the sort of tick box that you get from a survey.
It’s always a framework for me. And I really like the concept of freedom in a framework, which I have stolen with pride from Paul Zak, The Trust Factor.
And he talks about freedom in a framework, and that’s a lot of what my work is. It’s, “I’ve got five questions.” But I always say to people, “It might go off in different directions.”
They never see the questions in advance because it’s important that it’s a true and honest conversation, without people having the time to rehearse, and it’s giving yourself a good 90 minutes, those conversations, whether that’s going to take … Some of them take half an hour. Some of them take the full 90 minutes. As the listener, you also have to build in time for you to have that break between conversations, because when you’re really listening, it can be quite an intense time, so you can’t do too many.
I will always opt for conversations over a survey, especially if there is significant change going on, because the richness of that conversation and what you can gather from it, is just so powerful.
Oscar Trimboli: You have this beautiful analogy about having a headache and the symptoms of having a headache. Talk us through that and how it relates to what you’re listening for.
Jenni Field: We have a tendency in organizations to treat the symptoms. I developed The Field Model to understand, diagnose, and fix things that are going on in organizations.
So, the headache and energy comes from you can understand that you’ve got a headache. And traditionally, if I’ve got a headache today, then I’ll go and take a painkiller, maybe a paracetamol, something like that, and the headache will go away. So, I’ve treated the symptom of the headache.
I might then get a headache the next day, and I might take another paracetamol, and the next day, and the next day, and I’m just continually treating the symptom of the headache. Whereas if I stopped and thought, “Why am I getting a headache?
Maybe I’m getting a headache because I’m spending so much time in front of a screen.
Maybe I’m getting a headache because I haven’t drunk any water today.
Maybe I’m getting a headache because I can’t really see that far away and maybe I need glasses.”
There’s lots of different reasons why that headache would exist. So, if we take the time to understand that, then the treatment becomes new glasses if you need them. It becomes more water. It doesn’t become the painkiller. That’s just kind of papering over the cracks.
And that was the theory that I wanted to bring into organizations because I felt that we were spending so much time treating the symptoms.
I talk about taking them from chaos to calm, which is a lot of what we do. So, we’d say that chaos can be things like people off on stress and sick leave. That’s a symptom. That’s not a root cause. There’s something going on there. There’s either maybe an issue with a manager. Maybe there’s an issue with training and development.
Maybe there’s an issue with the way the organization’s run. There could be lots of reasons why people are feeling like that.
Whereas, if we just think sit there and say, “Oh, I know. We’ll run a wellbeing campaign about stress and burnout, and how we’ll spend thousands of pounds on this. And we’ll do some Post-its and some animation, and that’ll be lovely.”
That’s not helping us deal with the real issues. And those real issues are uncomfortable. And I always say, “You’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable because that’s where we’re going.”
And, so, that’s where the headache piece comes from. I love delving into what’s behind that headache because it’s always something that you can fix. And that’s about people, behavior, strategy, and culture. It’s all those things. But it’s about really looking at the trends and the themes and working out what’s causing those symptoms so that you’re not wasting time and money. And that’s ultimately what we don’t want to be doing.
Oscar Trimboli: Jenni, as we ladder from symptom to systemic issues, what we need to explore is what isn’t discussed, what isn’t said.
We always talk about the discussables are never discussed with the people who can make the change.
And it takes great skill from leaders to listen carefully to what’s not said and for systems to set up some kind of instruments and devices to listen for what’s not said. In your work, who’s done it well?
Jenni Field: When we are listening to what’s NOTsaid, you have to be incredibly present in this space and in the conversation. And I have to say, in my career, there are not many leaders that I have worked with that I would say are particularly present.
When you ask the question about, “Who’s doing that well?” I really struggle to think of people in my career, where I felt, “Gosh, they are really good at this.”
There’s probably a handful of people that I’ve come across who I feel are really listening and really with you. And that’s very few, because I do think so many people are busy, which is a word I generally don’t like to use, but they are moving from the next thing to the next thing and, therefore, they’re not with you. They’re not even listening to what’s being said, let alone what’s not being said.
And I think therein lies the issue that we have in organizations. I’m always listening for what’s not being said. And that, for me, is always in the words. Always comes back to language, doesn’t it? It’s the words that people are using, where I just want to just prod that little bit more into that word. And people are never aware that they’ve used that word, and that’s where you can really start to have really rich conversations.
Oscar Trimboli: Do you have a little list of those words?
Jenni Field: I feel like I should start to just keep a list of these ones, all the conversation. So, the one that often comes up with the leaders that I work with, and I’m thinking about a couple of managing directors that I’ve worked with over the years, and we’ve been having conversations about change, about improving communication.
And there’s a sentence that I often hear, which is, “We don’t want to talk about that because that’s negative. So, we just want to share this news.”
And it’s a very throwaway sentence, and it’s a very throwaway … and it’s gobbled up in something else. And I literally had this conversation less than a month ago of, “And just want to come back to, you use the phrase, ‘We don’t want to share the negative information.’ Just talk to me about what’s made you say that.”
I remember the person saying, “Oh no, well, what I meant was … ” So, you can feel them sort of bristle slightly and trying to dig themselves out of, “Oh, no, I wasn’t.” Because I said, “We’re getting into propaganda territory, if you only want to share the good news, and that’s certainly not a place you want to be because that’s just never a good thing.”
Oscar Trimboli: “What matters the most to me is,” “What’s important to me is,” “What I haven’t told you is,” some of those phrases. Sometimes, they’re really short phrases as well.
They’re phrases like, “Maybe” and “Always” or “Never.” There’s always something sitting behind those absolutes, when we have the conversation where we go and explore.
Jenni Field: When I start working with people, because I’m talking about things that are quite uncomfortable, sometimes organizations have a conversation with me and then run away because it’s hard. It’s difficult conversations. It’s uncomfortable.
And I always say to people, and I put this in my book, that, “It’s about two years. If you run away from me, you’ll probably come back in two years, and things are really not going very well.”
And that’s the consequences is, you get a good couple of years, where you think you can keep going. And then you pick up the phone and say, “Right, the symptoms are now quite severe and having quite a big impact on the business.”
And that’s what happens because you’ve just ignored it and brushed it under the carpet. And so often, when I go in and have conversations, there’ll be somebody around the board table that will say, “We know this. We know these things.” I’m going, “Yes, you probably do, but we now have to do something about it,” because especially if you’ve got, what I call toxic people, in your organization, which sounds very loaded, but sometimes we do, we have to do something about that. We have to take action. We have to make changes to change the culture and all those things. That’s the impact.
Oscar Trimboli: In 2021, we spoke to Simon Greer, to do a wonderful interview with us about why it’s important to listen to who you disagree with, actually listen to the blockers in the organization. You’ll uncover things very, very quickly.
Jenni, talk about the role of blockers in organizational change and how they can be positive agents for surfacing issues, as well as not.
Jenni Field: Knowing when someone’s a blocker, but wants to see the change, and someone that’s a blocker and is a true blocker and, therefore, probably needs to leave. And that’s always a tricky balance to work out, the benefit of those people in those conversations.
And I think they would all … Every conversation would always surface something that’s useful. And I think that’s really important that, that even if you think or you’re going in with a preconceived view, every conversation is going to surface something that’s going to be helpful.
And when you’re talking to people that are blockers, it’s about working out where that’s coming from for them. So, is it coming from a place of, “I really hate it here, and I really want to leave. And, therefore, I hate everything about it, and I’m just being deliberately obstructive and not helpful.”
Okay. That’s one. Versus people that just aren’t really bought in, got different agendas, versus another who is desperate for things to change, but can see a different avenue, so is deliberately moving things.
And if I reflect on my own career, there’s probably elements where I’ve been somewhat of a blocker, for want of a better word, where people try to get me to follow processes, and I don’t to. I just want them to set up a new vendor, so I’m going to push really hard, see if I can break a process. And if I can break it, and I’ll never follow it.
It’s understanding the reasons behind it. Again, it’s the symptom, isn’t it? If you’ve got someone that’s that’s not working with anybody, not following process, really stopping the organization from being productive and efficient, then that needs a conversation to understand why and whether or not they still want to be there.
And that’s where you get … It gets tricky because then you are into situations that can take years to sort of unravel, but you’ve got to understand the reasons why they’re being a blocker, and that’s the important thing. Otherwise, what happens in my experience is, leadership teams can sometimes put people into the box of “Jenni’s just very difficult.” And then you’re in the difficult box and, therefore, you’re kind of pushed to one side.
Whereas if you were to talk to Jenni, she might explain why she’s being difficult and, therefore, you can either fix it or address whatever it is that the symptom that you are seeing is actually the root cause behind that.
Oscar Trimboli: If you were to leave one or two pieces of advice for leaders, to make the most of the way they listen through their internal comms function?
Jenni Field: If you are looking to listen more, you have to be prepared to take action, and you have to be prepared to be honest and transparent about what the results have said. You have to combine, if you want to use surveys, it has to be combined with conversations. And you have to have an intention behind why you are listening.
If you’ve not done it before, once you then do that, people are going to probably go, “Oh, why? What are we doing? What’s happening? Why are we listening?” That worry might come forward, depending on where you are culturally. Being very clear about why you are listening, really helps people feel comfortable with sharing.
Oscar Trimboli: What did you take out of this conversation with Jenni? For me, there were many things in there.
I’d love to hear from you. If you would like to be one of three people who win a copy of Jenni’s book, Influential Internal Communication: Streamline Your Corporate Communication to Drive Efficiency and Engagement, I’ll be gifting three copies of the book.
Send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line, The Field Model, and write a few sentences about what you took out of today’s episode. That’s email@example.com, and you’ll be in the running to win three copies of the book.
Here are a few of my takeaways from today’s conversation.
The difference between what people say and what they mean. Remember that conversation Jenni had with the CEO about value versus risk.
And I love the way Jenni reflected on the, “Three months of wasted time, Oscar, is the cost of not listening.”
Jenni’s reflection on the organizations she’s worked with, that are collecting information in the survey. What are they actually doing with it? The organizations that are driving efficiency and engagement are those that have an action plan.
Jenni changed my mind about listening, as she said, aggregate data is useful. The most enriching conversations come from face-to-face, one-on-one conversations.
She changed my mind in this context because she said, when she listens in these meetings, she doesn’t provide the questions in advance because she wants to understand the value of true and honest conversation, without the time to rehearse.
And they got me thinking about the 125-900 rule and the difference between people’s thinking speed and their speaking speed. And Jenni kind of touched on it because she said some meetings will be 30 minutes long, and some will be two hours long.
I wonder how you approach conversations. Do you send people questions in advance, or do you pause? Do you just stay in the moment? Do you want to hear the raw, unrehearsed response?
Finally, thinking about listening to the blockers in your organization, rather than dismissing them and pushing them away. I love Jenni reflected that she may be a blocker in her past roles and her trying to break processes. I wonder what that got you thinking.
If you’d like to win a copy of Jenni’s book, Influential Internal Communication, a quick reminder, we’re giving away three copies of the book.
Send me an email, firstname.lastname@example.org, with the subject line, The Field Model.
I’m Oscar Trimboli and, along with the Deep Listening Ambassador community, we’re on a quest to create 100 million Deep Listeners in the workplace.
Thanks for listening.