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I’ve worked with dozens of companies who, despite having the best intentions, seem to repeat the same mistakes when it comes to surveying their people. Here are seven of those mistakes, and how you can avoid them:
1. Relying only on internal channels
Many organisations have the resources and technology to develop, build, and run surveys internally. However, this comes with risks that aren’t immediately obvious. In doing so, many employees automatically assume their responses aren’t safe or anonymous, and that the data will be scrutinised. The last thing you want is to create tension or anxiety for those completing the survey which may compromise the integrity of the answers they provide.
So even if your company does have the capability to run your own employee surveys, turning to an external provider can give employees confidence that the information is not sitting within the walls of the organisation.
2. You forget about the survey experience
Often, the time and energy put into conducting staff surveys is focussed on what the company will do with the survey results, which is important. But of equal importance is the experience of the survey itself.
It’s easy to overlook the simple things that can impact how an individual responds to the questions.
For example, if they can’t give a non-applicable or “doesn’t apply to me” response to a survey question that genuinely does not apply to them, this can significantly shape how they respond to the rest of the survey. Or, consider whether you’re giving employees the opportunity to complete the survey in their work time and in a safe, private space (think of an employee in a call center, for example, who needs to answer a certain amount of calls each day and sits in an open office environment where their screen is easily visible). These environmental factors can shape the experience and are things you need to address if you want a good response rate.
3. The survey becomes a competition
I’ve seen some managers compete for survey completion rates, which can be positive depending on the culture of the organisation but can also be negative if the outcome turns into bragging rights for the manager. The last thing you want is for employees to think, “Great, now I have to do this survey to make my manager look good.”
Instead, managers can use the survey as an opportunity to bring their team together and make it a positive experience. One manager bought their team breakfast and gave them dedicated time to complete it together (in private, of course) and used the survey as a chance to shape culture and impact engagement instead of just measuring it.
4. Not communicating around the survey
People organising employee surveys usually focus their communication efforts on how, where and when to complete it; vendors generally know how to do this to get a high response rate.
Sadly, communication around the “why” and “what follows” is missed.
Employees need and appreciate notes from the CEO, announcements from local managers, and discussions at team meetings – it gives them a chance to respond about how they’re feeling about the survey and address any hesitations, concerns, or even excitement surrounding it. Getting these conversations started are opportunities in and of themselves to create engagement and create a better workplace.
The survey should be seen as a mere speck of sand on the beach of opportunity when it comes to improving employee engagement and culture.
5. You make employee surveys “an HR thing”
Despite having the best intentions, the HR department usually takes the employee survey on under their remit. Managers say, “We don’t know how to do this, can you do it?” So the HR department run the project and it’s seen by employees seen as “an HR thing.”
At best, your employees perceive the initiative as one of HR’s KPIs and you might get a low or average response rate because they consider it’s of little importance to them. At worst, the survey is met with rolled eyes and folded arms and actually increases disengagement instead of improving it.
In order to avoid this, meet with and achieve buy-in and support from team leaders and employees throughout the business. Empower them with information to do the work with you and to start the dialogue that they need to have within their own teams.
6. You don’t give people feedback
So, your company has sent out the survey and people have responded. What happens next?
Usually, a LOT of time passes and by the time information gets to leaders and they realise what they need to do with it or how to conduct discussions around the results, it’s been so long that the survey data is no longer relevant. The delay is justified and excused and no one takes responsibility to act on the feedback. Meaning, the dialogue around the survey doesn’t happen.
Don’t run the risk of missing the boat because you wait for perfectly presentable, “tidied up” results before you communicate anything about the survey to your people. It’s important for organisations to come up for a breath every now and again and communicate about the initial results. This can simply be summaries of the key themes that came out of the results, with an explanation that you intend to dig deeper and communicate the details – and expected actions moving forward.
Whether it’s through town halls, monthly meetings, team huddles or one-on-ones, it’s important to share and seek more information from your people and also communicate what you are doing to improve things.
7. You sweep “bad results” under the rug
What happens when the data you get from your survey paints a picture you — or your executive team — don’t like? Maybe you’ve worked really hard on your company values, brought a consultancy in to help you shape them and have done a lot of work to communicate them. Then, you measure people’s awareness of the company values with an engagement survey and the results show nothing has changed.
You (or your leaders) might think, “That’s ridiculous, it can’t be right,” or “Those employees just don’t understand,” or (worse!), “Stuff it, we won’t invest in them anymore.” It’s an easy, flippant, but immature response to stay silent about “negative” results and to brush the feedback from employees under the carpet.
Instead, think of this feedback as a good thing. It means you have employees who are invested in and brave enough to be candid. This type of feedback demands attention and considered, timely dialogue. If a company is facing really big challenges — be it process, trust, leadership changes, or declining revenue — maintaining a sense of engagement and belonging requires open conversations. Being honest about the current state of the company is essential. Choosing to stay silent means you run the risk of breaking trust with the employees who are actually on your side.
When it comes to staff surveys, look at the big picture
Some of the best companies I’ve worked with work hard to remind their people that their engagement is a journey; survey results simply provide a snapshot of where they are in that journey.
The data you get in a survey is not a sum of your employee engagement.
It is a trigger to start dialogue between different areas on the business, and an indicator of where to focus your efforts and resources.
Companies who also take the opportunity to step back and acknowledge what’s been done and take the little steps towards improvement will also find the process of surveying staff easier as they progress. They use blog posts, emails, and meetings to share examples of some success and take the opportunity to celebrate little wins they’ve seen around people engagement initiatives.
You might be surprised at how the little things can create a ripple effect of positive change.
Joe Hart is an organisational psychologist and executive coach. He works with individuals, teams and organisations to help them tap into what makes them tick. This includes running one-on-one coaching, Psychometric assessments, workshops or organisation-wide diagnostics that help people engage in the conversations that create change.
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