• Krishna Esteva

Don't waste your employee survey

It’s a pattern I see all too often. A leadership team decides to run an employee survey. They spend a few weeks designing it, then spend a few more weeks cajoling everyone in the company to fill it out (in one particularly stark example, a company I know put their entire team in a conference room until the survey was complete). Then, when they finally get the responses back, they’ll go to analyze the results expecting really obvious insights to come out of it and struggle to come up with anything actionable. It’s one of the most surefire ways I end up with a new client.

Employee surveys are an incredibly powerful tool for building a high-functioning organization and yet in my experience they’re chronically wasted and as a result underutilized. Often, at the end of the process, a leadership team will leave things with a commitment to fix something vague like prioritization or communication. More problematically, they can become a box to check -- “we ran the survey, things are good” -- and not a meaningful decision input. In the very worst case, there’s a commitment to fix an issue flagged by the survey with a misunderstanding of the underlying root cause that ends up actually exacerbating the problem.

Inevitably, the reason is the same; the survey was treated as a standalone tactic instead of being part of a broader journey. For an employee survey to be useful, two additional steps are critical. First, you need to think carefully about how you’re going to act on the results -- what investments or changes you’re willing to make based on what you see. Second, you need to follow the survey with in-person conversations to understand the underlying drivers.

Design your survey with a specific goal in mind

A generic survey is like poorly designed market research. It will give you a vague sense of insight, of having ‘learned’ something, but won’t help you with any concrete decisions. If you have a clear sense of what decisions you’ll make based on a survey, then you can design it to help you make that decision. If you field the survey with a question decision in mind (e.g. rethinking your values or changing your communication processes) then you’re much more likely to get value from it. Some concrete questions that can make your surveys much more actionable are:

  • Do you have the right communication processes in place?

  • Is your organization prioritizing effectively or are you focusing on the wrong areas / spreading yourself too thin?

  • Is your organization making decisions quickly and effectively?

  • Should you invest in manager training as an organization?

  • Do you have the right values in place and is your organization living them?

  • Are teams resourced and set up for success?

  • Do you have a healthy feedback culture?

  • Are you doing enough to encourage diversity and inclusion?

All of these questions have concrete actionable next steps depending on the results. Try to answer all of them in a single survey, and you’ll likely get a muddled answer for each one. Focus and orient your survey around the challenges that are particularly top of mind for your organization and you’ll get a lot more value from it.

If you’re treating it more like a comprehensive check-up as opposed to something more focused, it can still be incredibly valuable but you need to treat the survey as just the first step in a longer process. It tells you what questions to ask (e.g. we need to understand why the team doesn’t feel like we prioritize well) instead of giving you the underlying answer. It’s also helpful to do these check-up surveys on a regular basis so you can look at trends over time and know where to dig in because scores changed.

Dive deeper in person

The second critical step to getting value from a survey is in-person follow-up. There are inherent limitations to the survey format, there’s a lot of subjectivity in how people interpret the questions and a lot of context gets lost in an aggregated anonymized online form. Surveys are great for giving you an overarching “what” (e.g. things are good / ok / bad) but aren’t great for understanding the underlying why. Even with well designed free response sections, surveys will still only give you a partial picture.

To address that, surveys work best when paired with follow-up conversations. They’re a great way to know which questions to ask, but you need to take the time to actually ask those questions. Without the in-person follow-up, it’s a bit like getting an MRI without talking to a doctor. It might be vaguely useful and you might be able to catch severe issues yourself, but without additional questions and an expert opinion it’s unlikely to give a complete diagnosis.

Depending on the context, these conversations can be done in smaller groups but ideally should be done 1:1. There’s no substitute for the space a 1:1 creates to articulate the challenges someone is dealing with. In a larger group, it’s easy for reticence to kick in and you end up hearing a limited perspective. If that sounds like a lot of time then ask yourself whether it’s worth spending 30 minutes to find out what would make someone more effective for the rest of their year. If it still sounds like a lot of work, then that’s exactly why Sympath exists -- to make it easier.

Don’t waste your employee surveys

Employee surveys are an incredibly useful tool for leading a scaling organization. They’re one of the few quantitative sources of insight when managing people. If you’re not getting value from them, then it might be time to ask yourself why and whether you’re using them the right way.

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