To Survey Or Not To Survey–That Is A Good Question

In the late 1920s to early 1930s, the Hawthorne Factory in Cicero, Illinois conducted a series of studies on the impact of lighting on workers’ productivity. Minute upticks in lighting seemed to create unaccountably higher productivity. Equally puzzling was the same reaction–increased productivity–from downward lighting. The analysis ultimately showed that the simple act of asking employees about their work conditions and including them in the tests jump-started their motivation, improving their productivity. While this conclusion might seem over-simplified (especially considering it was the worst economical time in our history, leading to a higher than normal fear of job loss), similar studies have shown the same results.

Asking people for their input makes a difference, and thus a new science-based field was born: Industrial Psychology.

Today, an enormous variety of employee surveys are prevalent throughout all sizes and types of organizations. There are a myriad of standardized tests/surveys–from predictive tools that can tell you how well your organization will perform to tools designed to give you insight into “issues” that need to be addressed, to surveys that will “sense” the mood of employees, tell you how “engaged” they feel, how motivated to perform they might be and even how likely they are to leave or stay with your team.

At this point, not doing surveys seems to fill management teams with guilt, as if they don’t care about their employees’ insights and feelings.

For many years, OPAD has worked with organizations that undertake such surveys, analyze the data and help to interpret the results. Usually, we find that it was not made clear prior to the survey being done what the senior management would do with the data–what specific information they wanted to know and why, and what responses would be satisfactory.

As with the Hawthorne Effect, the idea to do surveys was based on it being important to give a voice to employees. The uncomfortable underlying premise is that workers don’t have an on-going voice to be heard, responded to and sought out and that there are not legitimate rewards in place for sharing ideas, reactions and suggestions. An anonymous test becomes the best method of gathering “honest” information, as it can relieve the fear employees might otherwise feel about sharing their thoughts. Not that snap-shot overviews are without value. It’s the opportunity to educate and truly include employees’ thoughts that can get lost.

Most surveys consist of groups of questions that attempt to get to a specific item of interest, such as teamwork, goal setting, communications, engagement, peer respect, supervisor respect,and the like. When the surveys are administered, they are commonly organization-wide with little consideration to the differences in geography, functions, skill requirements, or other distinguishing factors within an organization. Rarely do surveys ask the importance of an item and the level to which that item is being implemented. The difference between a particular item’s ideal implementation and it’s actual implementation would better indicate how important it might be to respond with actions to the survey results.

Even more rare is the management team that spends time prior to giving the survey delving into the questions, predicting what the answers will be and identifying what answers would constitute a satisfactory response. Instead, they wait for the results and then work to interpret what those results might imply about their organization.

For us, the biggest issue is not whether or not to do a survey, but rather how to perform a survey in a way that is meaningful, productive, and provides useful insight into the workings of the organization. Below are our suggestions for a productive survey.

1. Make sure the mission, vision, values, and top organizational strategies are still what the senior team believes in.
2. At the start of the survey, explain that the survey’s purpose is to see how well we are implementing the mission, vision, values and strategies.
3. Have each question contain an element of the mission, values, or strategies and ask, “How important to the success of our company/organization is ________.” This should be followed-up with a question on how well we are executing that element and leave space for suggestions on how to improve.
4. Have each senior management person fill out one for him/herself and review the results to come to consensus on importance and what the expectations of results will be.
5. Prior to the dissemination of the survey, be sure each team leader is clear on its purpose, planned follow up, and value to the organization. Make sure that each leader can convey this to their team members.
6. Once the results have been gathered and analyzed, share them with the entire organization. Allow time for each individual team to discuss the results and use them to brainstorm suggestions and improvements, as well as put plans together to close any gaps between ideal policy and actual policy both within teams and organization-wide.

The value of such a process is–

1. Re-educating the entire organization on the mission, vision, values and strategies.
2. Focusing feedback on how the organization can improve itself in the quest of its mission.
3. Giving a voice to ideas and suggestions that might not come up in day-to-day interactions and conversations.
4. Offering a chance to reward such ideas on a team and individual basis
5. Assuring that the information being gathered and analyzed is useful to the organization, and that management is committed to using that information to improve the organization.
6. Providing an ongoing reference to how well the organization is working to meet its mission

Keeping in touch with employees is a year-round responsibility for anybody that has the honor of managing others. It requires deep thought and consideration of how to gather the data, how to analyze and respond to the responses. The better the planning and work upfront, the more helpful and important the whole activity. We have helped many organizations to assure this project is meaningful, motivational and helps focus whole companies on how to use the results to better enable the company to meet its mission and goals.

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