The past few blogs have looked at how to get insight from employee surveys, and how to use that insight to drive meaningful action. This blog will explain why you shouldn’t have bothered in the first place.
This may sound strange; after all, I make my living from employee surveys, and I think they are valuable and have their place.
However, sometimes surveys are sometimes the wrong thing to do, and are in fact a way of avoiding doing something, rather than providing insight on what to do.
I’m sure that if you work in an organisation on surveys, you will have had a conversation or two, often with a leader, about how they can do their own survey. A pulse check, to see how things are going, or to uncover some particular issue in their area.
In my experience this happened most in IT or Finance functions, but that may just be me.
Wherever it was, the conversations would go in a fairly similar way. Remember when reading this that will already have had some high quality insight from the survey.
Me: “How can I help?” (well, I am a consultant)
Leader: “We’ve had a look at the survey results and we need to do another survey to really get underneath our issues.”
Me: “Your issues?”
Leader: “Yes, we think we have some specific issues that affect just our part of the organisation, because of some local things. We need to really get into them and find out what they are.”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask people?”
Leader: “Well that’s why we need a survey, to ask people.”
Me: “Why do you need a survey? Your people are right there, just go and ask them.”
Leader: “But we want a survey.”
There is the pulse check variation, as well.
Me: “How can I help?”
Leader: “We need a survey to see how well the action plans are working.”
Me: “You had a survey three months ago. Everyone did.”
Leader: “Yes, and we put action plans in place. We need to measure how well they are going.”
Me: “But it’s only been three months. I doubt there had been much meaningful change yet, don’t you think people might get a bit annoyed at having to fill in another survey?”
Leader: “But how will we know if its working if we can’t measure it?”
Me: “Why don’t you just ask people…” etc, etc.
At this point, being an evil genius, I will have reached into my special consultant’s big back pocket where I carry my evidence for when I need to challenge something. (That’s my tip for today, by the way, if you want to challenge somebody, especially somebody senior, make damn sure you can back it up with evidence. You’re welcome.)
In there, I will have data on the behavioural norms of that bit of the organisation, and I will see that there is lots of avoidance going on. Responsibilities are pushed upstairs. Mistakes are buried. No-one takes responsibility, and blame is shoved elsewhere. People seem to get on, and conversations are polite and pleasant, no matter what has gone on. An erstwhile colleague of mine summed it up rather elegantly in the phrase “never be discovered in the same room as a decision”.
Because the leader knows they just need to talk to people but they have an overriding need to avoid doing that. Because they might have to have a difficult conversation. They might need someone to be honest about failure or mistakes. Even worse, the leader in question may have made those mistakes, or overseen that failure. They may need to take responsibility, and that is something that just can’t happen in a culture of avoidance.
Rather than speak to people, they give the illusion of giving them a voice by doing a survey, and then the most challenging thing they have to face is some tricky conditional formatting on a spreadsheet.
It’s the antithesis of engagement, dressed up to look like it.
Thus armed with my cultural diagnostic, I then challenge said leader. “Your desire to do more surveys is but another example of your behavioural norm of avoidance,” I say. “You need to speak to people, face to face, openly and in a way that they can feed back honestly and in a safe way.”
What happens next varies; in the best case scenario they listen, and I sit down with them and help them work out a programme of focus groups and town hall meetings where people can have their say and add further insight and depth to the leader’s understanding. They do this, and things generally change for the better.
Or they go over my head and get their director to ask the HRD to let them do a survey. (Hopefully the HRD says no, you need to speak to your people, because they understand how things should work).
Or they just go ahead and do a survey anyway, then get bogged down in analysis paralysis because hey, it’s important, we need to get this right, you know?
Sometimes they even come back and ask for help with the results. And I tell them to talk to people.
The vast majority of conversations I have which start with “we need to do a survey” go along these kind of lines; if you have a survey, done across the organisation on an annual basis, then there is very little that will convince me that you need any more.
Survey fatigue is when you ask people over and over again what they think of working here without doing anything about it. At some point people are going to say “why bother?”, and stop bothering.
So next time you want to know how people are feeling in your bit of the organisation, ask yourself: what’s the best way to do this? How will I find out how things are going? If I want a survey is it because I want to know what is happening, or actually avoid knowing?
Or, if you are the survey person ask yourself is a survey the best way? And do I have the evidence in my big back pocket to prove that it isn’t?

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