Online, you’ll find many recipes for employee surveys- “The 6 Steps to Great Employee Surveys…” etc. A quick scan of these articles and blog posts reveals that most of the advice is about survey design, to help you avoid an impulsively initiated survey without clear purpose. Poorly conceived surveys usually make things worse, and the survey industry and HR profession have responded with a large knowledge base about survey design and administration.
Let’s assume you’ve been well informed by all this, and your survey is well intended, strategic, well designed and administered. Congratulations. You are 20% of the way home.
Yes, despite doing all the great things recommended by the experts, you can still miss the biggest opportunity inherent in employee surveys. The good news is that an employee survey can be a leverage point that can probably do far more good than you are now imagining. Here’s how.
Surveys in Context
Why do we survey our organizations? The first motivation is to gather information that isn’t readily available otherwise. Why isn’t it readily available? Because the organization’s natural feedback loops aren’t providing it. Just pause for a second and think about the implications of that.
This happens in all organizations…life moves fast, we don’t always communicate completely, and relationships have varying degrees of trust. Plus, there’s the “I might get fired if I say that” concern. So what we are willing to say to each other at work, and what we have the opportunity to talk about, are limited by circumstance and history.
Your organization’s health, and thus its success, is improved when those feedback loops are getting stronger. Better and more timely information about how people are feeling, what’s working well and what’s not, the sense of optimism about the future, clarity about the vision…that’s the stuff on which leadership thrives. And those feedback loops are never static; they are either improving or eroding.
Herein lies the true opportunity inherent in employee surveys – to improve those natural feedback loops so the surveys become less necessary, and the organizations function better.
Here’s my premise:
- A survey should improve the organization’s natural feedback loops and relationships so that a survey is less necessary going forward. That’s the real measure of success; that’s “where the gold is.”
- How the survey information is interpreted, shared, and acted on will either strengthen or weaken those feedback loops. There’s no neutral ground here; surveys always send a message and provide an experience to the organization that either strengthens those feedback loops, or weakens them.
How to Strengthen the Organization with Your Survey
This isn’t complex. It can require a little courage and energy, but in the long run will leave you more energized and hopeful, less uncertain and anxious.
Let’s look at the normal and traditional approach to interpreting the data, and by whom, and what happens afterwards:
- HR or a survey company sorts the data into themes and patterns, and identifies changes from prior years.
- Senior management determines which themes, patterns, and changes are important, and interpret what they really mean to the organization.
- Decisions are made by management about what to do (fresh commitments and action plans).
- A summarized version of the results and subsequent commitments/plans are shared with the employees.
Here’s the message in that traditional approach: you (employees) provide the raw information to us (management), and we’ll figure out what you are saying to us, and what we are going to do about it, and then let you know about it. Thanks for participating; we really appreciate your help!
Think for a minute about the implications of this message, for ongoing feedback, trust, and relationships.
Here’s an alternative approach which will strengthen the feedback loops, improve trust, and create precedent and skills for better dialogue:
- A cross section of the organization sorts the data into themes, patterns, and changes. Using a structured, facilitated workshop, this group determines what the organization is saying to itself, about itself. This is framed as a learning experience.
Optional: Those representatives go back to their respective groups with this first draft, get further feedback, and then reconvene to improve it.
- This group then determines what to do about what is has learned. How we can make things better around here? What have we discovered, and what can we do with it?
Usually the results are more cultural than strategic, although sometimes new strategic goals emerge – we can easily improve the (program) so we can deliver more of (program results).
A simple structure for sorting the results is best, such as do more of, do less of, keep doing, start doing.
- Leadership translates those generalities into actions and integrates them into the normal strategic processes of the organization. This final result is communicated to all constituents.
The Benefits of This Approach
Accuracy: The interpretations of the data (themes, patterns, changes) will be much more on target. It is simply unfair to ask a senior management team to get this right on their own. No single group in the organization can interpret the entire organization very well. Senior management’s role shifts from interpreting to ensuring good interpretive process.
Capability Building: The organization’s ability to have a productive conversation with itself is strengthened.
The Culture You Want: This approach is adult-adult, with a strong statement that responsibility for the culture is shared by everyone. This is liberating throughout the organization.
Leadership Development: This requires mature, thoughtful participation, and provides an opportunity for “our best selves” to emerge. The informal leaders and grapevine become stronger forces for positive change.
This takes us back to the beginning: step one in anyone’s survey recipe is to be clear about your intentions and desired results. I hope this has helped you reshape your image of your desired results, and helped you see the survey as a tremendous opportunity for positive change.
Summary of Some of the Differences
|Traditional Approach||Alternative Approach|
|Direction of Information Flow||EE’s to Management||The organization to itself|
|Implications for Responsibility||Management||All of Us|
|Accuracy||Interpretations about Others||Interpretations about Self|
|Action Plan Alignment||A lot of work to get EE buy-in||Shared tone and direction|
|Feedback loop impact||Creates survey dependency for “truth” speaking||Improves candor, trust, relationships, and skills|