Supercharge the Staff Survey

Management Today, October 1, 2009 | Go to article overview

Supercharge the Staff Survey

Honest feedback from the front line is vital for good morale and effective strategy, yet the business of asking staff what they think too often descends into a self-serving exercise in box-ticking. Rhymer Rigby on how to boost your poll performance.

There's more than a whiff of The Office about staff questionnaires Having been endlessly exhorted by magazines like this one to listen to their staff, senior management commission - at great expense - a survey full of bar-charts, analysis and impressive-sounding jargon in order to seem to be doing so. But, often, little attention is paid to asking the right questions - and do they even want to know the answers?

If the results show a motivated, engaged and happy workforce, then, great, the bosses are heroes. If the findings aren't quite as spiffy as that, well, statistics can always be massaged to make them look better. And if staff morale is so bad that no amount of processing can make a silk purse out of a sow's ear, there's always the option of burying the evidence. Maybe in a year's time the exercise will be repeated, with questions suitably modified to encourage more acceptable answers, until staff tell the bosses what they want to hear.

'A lot of surveys start from the wrong point,' says Peter Hutton, author of What Are Your Staff Trying to Tell You?, a former Mori director and founder of Brand Energy Research. 'You start from saying 'We've got to do a survey', rather than 'We should systematically listen to staff',' he says. 'So you go and find someone who does surveys and you say to them: 'Tell us what we should be asking', and you wind up asking a standardised list of questions that owes more to consistency than your own needs.'

This is not a terribly productive way of going about things. Management expends considerable time and money producing what amounts to self-serving propaganda, an expensive doorstop of a document from which they will learn nothing. Meanwhile, employees who may not need much encouragement to suspect their bosses' motives end up feeling ignored, frustrated and demotivated. People are generally adept at spotting bullshit, and bosses rarely get away with attempts at spin and dissimulation.

Even if the survey is conducted in a spirit of open inquiry, there are still pitfalls to avoid. The classic one is a failure to act on unpalatable results. Changing the decor in the toilets is one thing, responding to criticism of the firm's culture or strategy quite another. Too often, management seems unprepared to follow through on the feedback to any but the most trivial of questions.

'Employee surveys can often be an embodiment of the phoniness of the modern workplace,' says Stephen Overell, an associate director at the Work Foundation. 'On the one hand, you have people saying they're very interested in how staff feel, and on the other surveys become a kind of end in themselves. You acknowledge people's feelings and then you give up. Surveys are common, but solid evidence of them leading to action is rather rarer.'

A shame, because they can be enlightening and useful exercises for all involved. Thankfully, there are businesses that conduct exemplary staff surveys: they ask the right questions, communicate the results well and act on criticism or suggestions for improvement. But for an organisation wanting to take the pulse of its employees, the business of doing so can seem baffling. What should you be asking? How should you ask? How often should you do it? How should you respond?

Where do the problems lie? For starters, as Hutton suggests, employee surveys tend to be similar from one firm to the next. Says Virginia Merritt, co-founder of organisational development consultancy Stanton Marris: 'Because surveys often ask very general questions, people will simply fill them in depending on how they feel that day. If you've had a bad day, you tend to rant.'

So don't let your survey provider lead you by the nose. …

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