To Survey or Not to Survey?

By Theresa Welbourne

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If you are a manger of people, you have inevitably been part of the annual, semi-annual, or every other year employee survey. It is a ritual that goes on in almost every large organization and one that is trickling down to mid-size and small companies.

Being a victim of such arduous, time-consuming adventures, you must wonder why corporate HR partakes in this particular exercise.

These are the reasons given:

  • To improve performance.
  • To measure something about people for our balanced score card because people are an important asset.
  • To see how we compare with other companies in our industry.
  • To hold managers accountable for improving on our survey questions.
  • We've been doing it for a long time, and our board of directors insists that we do the survey.
  • We're part of an elite group of companies that do this survey, and we want to keep being part of that group.
  • Unfortunately, most of these reasons do not make sense to you, the manager.

    Here's the list of what managers have told me over the years:

  • It is impossible to improve performance with data that comes back to me months after the survey is conducted.
  • It is extremely difficult to improve performance when the data I get back is about big corporate things I can't change.
  • I hear the mantra that "people are the most important asset" but, in reality, I see many examples of behaviors that indicate people are not so important.
  • The box on the balanced score card is for a score about something that no one thinks is really important.
  • Who cares if my firm's score is higher or lower than some benchmark from other companies? Who are the companies I'm being compared to, and how old is the data?
  • Just because other firms spend big dollars on doing the ritual surveys, why do we have to do it?
  • No one asked you, the manager, whether you want to do the big, massive employee survey. It just comes to you from on high, you do it, and maybe (not in all cases) you receive some sort of feedback.

    But as the manager, you hear the complaints from your employees when yet one more year they see no action and no change in response to the employee survey process.

    Good Idea Gone Wrong

    I went through this manager litany because I hear it all the time but unfortunately for managers the core science behind doing surveys is a legitimate one.

    Employees have information that you do not have, and if you could obtain that information and use it to make better business decisions, then you the manager would be more successful.

    Unfortunately, the theory goes awry because most surveys fail to ask employees questions about the business.

    Employee surveys ask a lot of questions about the employees, about leadership process, and about HR systems. And in most cases, the surveys are conducted by firms that provide consulting or some other services to fix what's broken in the areas covered by the survey.

    Surveys also are developed by academics working on theories of human behavior and their surveys focus on the particular aspect of humans that they are studying.

    Those behaviors studied are usually related to firm performance, but also, they tend to emphasize practices that are not under the control of the every day manager; they are more strategic or "corporate" in nature.

    Managers know the survey process has turned into a nightmare, thus, they have been trying to find new answers. I applaud the effort, but again, I think a good idea may be going wrong.

    I see a lot of mangers taking matters into their own hands by purchasing inexpensive self-service survey tools and creating their own surveys.

    This method provides the manager with quick data, and that is positive, but without some guidance in question design, managers have lots of data but not useful information.

    Transforming Surveys

    After years of hearing manager frustrations with the survey process and after decades of talking to employees who are fed up with the process, I have teamed up with two universities to try to do something that may help the individual manager.

    In a large-scale project between eePulse and the Broad Graduate School of Business at Michigan State University, we are combining data from employees with executive learning to immediately transform data from employees -- but about the business -- into management actions that improve performance.

    Our ideas are simple but may change how you view and use your survey data:

  • Use a survey, but make it simple. Survey more frequently, say monthly, and contain between five and seven questions.
  • Surveys should take no more than a couple of minutes to complete.
  • Get managers the data immediately.
  • Have managers agree to administer their surveys at the same time.
  • Start the process with validated questions that are supplemented with lots of open-ended comment questions. We want employees to speak out and tell us what they see.
  • Categorize and trend the comment data. This makes it possible to benchmark the comments too.
  • Customize the process for each participating manager.
  • Employee surveys simply have not changed much over the years. Sure, people have gone from paper-based to Web-based surveys, but in most cases, the questions and processes have not changed. And with that, manager reaction to the process has not been altered.

    With this new approach, the goal is to radically transform how employee surveys are used and, therefore, how managers can take action with real-time data from employees but about the business.

    Theresa Wellbourne, is the founder, president and CEO of eePulse and an adjunct professor of Executive Education at the University of Michigan Business School. If you wish to participate her ongoing leadership study, which is available to you at no cost, please register at: www.umbs.leadership.eepulse.com.