The Survey: Tool or Torture?

“Once upon a time, surveys were a staple for every leader to solicit feedback and every company to assess engagement.  But now, surveys are starting to look like diesel trucks collecting dust in the age of electric cars.”

— Scott Judd, Eric O’Rourke, and Adam Grant in The Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2018 [1]

So what’s happening to the survey as a leadership tool?  Has it become a “diesel truck collecting dust”?  Certainly, a number of leaders believe this perception of a growing lack of survey relevance and utility to be true.  In their minds, it’s better to use machine-learning algorithms to crunch big data and determine the pulse of a company or department, than burden the team with answering survey questions.

As Jennifer Cullen wrote in HBR only a few months earlier than Judd, O’Rourke, and Grant, there are inherent problems with many surveys simply in the way they are designed, too.  She refers to two psychological hurdles that skew results: “Social Desirability Bias,” and “Acquiescence Bias.” [2]  In the first case, team members want to present themselves in a positive light; in the second, they agree as a default response to many survey statements.

But I don’t think it’s time to abandon the survey as a leadership tool by writing it off as a form of corporate torture.  Instead, we need to address the process of designing, conducting, and using surveys more deliberately.  Here are some techniques I’ve seen employed very successfully by leaders to get meaningful, actionable feedback:

  1. Keep it simple.  In my book, We’re All In: The Journey to a World-Class Culture, the Culture Survey in the last chapter consists of 12 questions.  Don’t lead the respondent toward a bias in the range of options by the way you phrase the statements, either.  Be clear and direct.
  2. Compile and Publish the Results. This might seem like a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious), but amazingly many organizations conduct a survey, and then don’t publish the results.  No wonder the respondents feel the survey is just an exercise, or a drill, without substance or purpose.
  3. Build and Execute an Action Plan. The number one complaint I hear from team members taking a survey is: “Nothing ever happens as a result.”  Make a commitment to taking action.  People want to follow leaders who are willing to confront the facts and commit to doing something to address them.

Use the survey tool well, and you’ll see measurable results. It is about helping make your team feel more engaged with their work. Enjoy the journey!

[1]Employee Surveys Are Still One of the Best Ways to Measure Engagement” by Scott Judd, Eric O’Rourke, and Adam Grant in The Harvard Business Review, March 14, 2018.

[2]Where Employee Surveys on Burnout and Engagement Go Wrong” by Jennifer Cullen in The Harvard Business Review, December 14, 2017.


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