Risks and Rewards of Staff Surveys
"Despite the economy, morale is really high," a CEO recently told me.
I said: "That's great. How can you tell?"
The CEO replied: "People just seem buoyant, smiling. There's a lot of energy around the place."
On the face of it, nothing is wrong with this conversation. Morale is high, people are happy, and they have an (apparently) observant CEO. What bothered me about it is that the CEO doesn't really know what he is seeing. Were people smiling because they were happy, because the sun was shining, or because they'd just bought a new puppy? Leaders tend to be more optimistic than other people and we are all inclined to interpret information to our own advantage. So the truth is, this CEO might know something about his staff or he might know nothing.
I'm all in favor of peripheral vision and instinct, but this CEO would do better with data and statistics. That's what staff surveys are for: to give insight and benchmarks that deliver more than random observation. A lot of people sigh when surveys are mentioned, and they do so because too often surveys are designed without focus or intent. If you're going to survey the staff, do it well.
1. Ask people what matters
Before you construct a survey, pull a group of employees together and ask them what they think matters most to your workforce. This isn't scientific but you don't want to waste attention on issues no one cares about. Surveys are better short and to the point.
2. Focus on what can be changed
There's no point asking about catering, parking, or pay (the three biggest sources of aggravation) if you don't have the means to change any of these things. So focus on processes which could be different or issues that can be handled in other ways. Think hard about what the company can afford to vary and what it cannot. It's better to focus on a few initiatives you're willing to commit to.
3. Anonymous or not
Some companies enjoy a culture that allows surveys to be signed and transparent. Others know that the best way to get the hard truth is to make surveys anonymous. In general, I think people are more honest when they know they won't be identified with their remarks. But if you use anonymous surveys, you must honor that protection completely. If the anonymity is blown, your credibility goes with it.
You can also try a mixed approach, in which basic questions are anonymous but written comments and suggestions can be signed. Think about witty or meaningful rewards for the best suggestions and celebrate these. You want people to be proud of their contribution.
4. Publish results quickly
Don't let too much time elapse between conducting a survey and sharing the results. In the absence of feedback, people will assume the survey didn't matter or has thrown up data nobody's willing to share. Fill that potential vacuum with the hard data, and lessons learned.
5. Build a plan
After you do the survey, pull together key issues and findings. Do this with a working group that can and should think deeply about what the results mean. If people complain about the office kitchen, is it really about the food available, or because they don't have enough time to get out? Once you feel you have explained the issues, put a plan together that shows what you're prepared to do to make improvements. Share this with your team too. One of the greatest sources of confidence in leadership is spelling out and delivering on the obvious: identify the problem, communicate the plan, and execute next steps. It's amazing how powerful it is when you do what you say you're going to do.
6. Benchmark and start again
Surveys are to companies what feedback is to personal development. Both need to be clear and frequent. No staff survey will fix everything once and for all. Issues will change and progress proves sporadic. So keep at it. Revisit what the issues are and how you are tackling them. The more they are seen to drive change, the more honesty people will bring to their responses. At that point, unlike my hapless CEO, you will know what's really going on, and be in a position to do something about it.
Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.