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Listening with Curiosity

Once you have created a Cultural Health survey to help diagnose possible areas for improvement within your company, the second step is to really listen with curiosity to your responses. Often, getting negative feedback in a survey response can feel so overwhelming that particularly compassionate, empathetic employers shut down. This makes sense because we know how much time and energy we spend caring for our employees and worrying about them. To hear something negative from them can be intensely triggering. We know the sacrifices we make so that they can have a job and feed their family; we know the unpredictability of business income; we know which employees feel like an asset and which employees feel like a liability in our hearts. What if the negative feedback is just coming from whiners? Should we listen to that?

We don’t want to hurt our employees. We don’t want to be the bad guy. But some negative feedback just seems so unreasonable.

The question you need to ask yourself is whether it is worth it to you to find out about problems while they sound petty or unreasonable, so that you can prevent them from becoming systemic and fatal to your business.

A client who came to me to help her report sexual harassment worked for a non-profit that focused on advocating for a vulnerable population in the justice system. The work they were doing was important. I say “was” because the non-profit had no structure for diagnosing its own cultural health issues, even though it was active in advocating for others. Many women within the company felt they were experiencing harassment and discrimination, but by the time the board of directors found out about it, the issue was so pervasive and extreme that they had to shut the non-profit down. They lost the entire staff suddenly, although as far as I understand only my client was willing to say why, and because the director was the one accused of the harassment, the work couldn’t continue. In my view, this was a great tragedy that could have been avoided by early diagnosis and simple preventative steps.

In order to be effective in truly diagnosing problems, a survey is only a first step. Even if you get responses in the survey that seem unreasonable or hurtful, you want to lean in to those responses and find out more (especially about the responses you want to resist). If you don’t feel like the responses are comprehensive because a whole group of employees you want to listen to didn’t respond, have compassion for your intention to listen, and listen to their silence.

Sometimes, business owners will want to break the anonymity of responses or target certain groups for follow-up based on what feels like genuine intent to listen. This can have disastrous consequences, though. A colleague shared with me that her company conducted a cultural health survey, which was supposed to be anonymous, but the director of a department forced the people conducting the survey to identify one of the employees based on a response. The director justified this, saying the response showed a misunderstanding the director wanted to clarify in order to help the employee.

Because the anonymity was breached, however, it created rampant mistrust within the company and sent the message that employees could be targeted based on their responses. When I conduct a survey, the responses are anonymous, even to me.

People find direct pressure or singling out to answer the questions very intimidating and sometimes threatening. Most people have experiences where they’ve been told if they talk about discrimination they’ll get fired. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) reports that seventy-five percent of people who report discrimination experience retaliation. This step is intended to be a first note to say, “I care about your opinion if you want to share it,” and to get you the information people are willing to share. Typical numbers for an employee survey response are sixty to ninety percent. Not filling it out is an answer in its own way even though it’s not definitive.

For some people (this is true of me), asking them to fill out a cultural health survey is like saying, “we wanted to do a survey about how experiences of child abuse impacts your work.” Then, for those who have not resolved their child abuse, just that question is intensely triggering. If you go back to them and say, “I notice you personally didn’t tell us about your child abuse – please fill this out,” any information you get is going to be informed by that person’s experience of being singled out about their child abuse. It would be amazing instead to start working toward an environment where people can start to resolve those experiences and see that they’re not dangerous to talk about.

If the majority of a culturally disadvantaged group doesn’t respond to a survey, it makes sense. You could substitute “we’re doing a survey about how being fat or thin impacts your work,” and then if a majority of people classified as obese (the culturally disadvantaged characteristic) don’t respond, it in itself provides some information. Having a skinny girl (or white person, man, able-bodied person, heterosexual, cis-gender, Christian, etc.) follow up individually and call people out for not responding won’t increase people’s sense of safety in responding. A cultural health survey is a very preliminary step and in itself does not resolve cultural health issues. Any information employees are willing to share is helpful in deciding next steps for moving forward, but the answers or lack of answers in themselves are only a first step.

To truly find out more about negative feedback and responses, you have to be able to manage and understand your own feelings and treat yourself like a good boss. After all, you are one of the employees of the company. This is a very challenging task.

To start, have compassion for your own feelings around the responses. It is impossible to listen to other people if you aren’t listening to yourself. Understand fully where you are coming from without judgment (even if it seems unreasonable when you first hear yourself). Have the compassion for your own perspective that you would offer to a friend you love. This is a key step in managing the way you use your power over your employees.

Just because one feeling is valid does not make other feelings less valid. When you encounter negative responses to a survey, it is fair to feel hurt or even betrayed. Often, we believe our only options are to feel negative “real” feelings or to pretend we feel positive “fake” feelings. That is a false choice because there are hundreds of other feelings that are equally “real” to our negative feelings, but that feel better or are more useful. The options are not limited to “hurt” and “happy,” or “betrayed” and “supported,” although each of those may be a valid option.

Take some time to allow space for any negative feelings that come up right away when you hear negative feedback, but don’t take action from that place. If you are trying to force down how you really feel and pretend you feel positively, this won’t work. People can smell it – especially people in a subordinate position to you like employees, students, or even kids. They know when you’re covering something up. Once you have taken a little time (which could be one hour, could be one week) to validate and process your feelings away from your employees, you can choose whether to make a shift.

Some information you get may need an immediate response, and so if that is the case, one way to respond and still give yourself space to process is to send out an all-employee email saying something like, “I appreciate everyone’s participation in the Cultural Health Survey we sent out. I know this can bring up difficult experiences for some, and your willingness to share that and have tough conversations is something I value and admire. Over the next couple of weeks, we will be deciding exactly how to move forward with issues that were raised.

If this survey brought up a problem for you that you feel we should know more about, please talk to a member of the management team you feel comfortable with, and we will include that in our plan moving forward.

If you have a mental or physical condition, and an accommodation would help you perform your job to the fullest extent, please let us know, and we will start working toward an appropriate accommodation. Thanks again for your participation.”

Then, attend to your own experience. If you were giving advice to an employee about how to encounter criticism in her position, what would be your advice about a useful way to encounter it? If you stay in a hurt, defensive place it will shut down your ability to listen and find out the best way to move forward.

The feelings I have found to be incredibly useful to shift to and cultivate for encountering disagreement or negative feedback are openness, curiosity, and courage. Openness acknowledges that you are strong enough to feel negative feelings and still move forward. Curiosity lets you lean in to whatever you are missing and ask more questions. Courage says this is supposed to be scary or painful and it’s still worth moving forward. What is a time when you have been incredibly productive in encountering a difficult situation? How did you feel then? That could be a great window into a feeling that works for you for encountering your employees.

After you give your survey, you want to follow up with openness and curiosity to hear about specific problems and how they might be showing up in your workplace. You may want to invite employees to engage in a process to get support and accommodation around their particular issue. You may want to hold open discussions or trainings regarding a problem area. The survey is just a start, and the follow up to the survey makes a huge difference as to whether employees believe you are listening and learn to listen themselves.

These conversations are hard, and they’re supposed to be hard. If it is hard, you are doing it right. Also, give yourself the same grace you would give to someone you loved who was going through something hard. Then, after you have awareness over where you are, it’s time to start the community healing process.


This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon.

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