Jan 04, 2016
Have you noticed an increase in companies applying survey methods to gather feedback on employee opinion? It might be a questionnaire to measure engagement, safety attitudes or workplace culture. Now I am an absolute advocate for collecting data, but how do you make sense of the results and what can be done to verify if the numbers are real?
There is no doubt that surveys are helpful, however, there are limitations that can mislead if the method is adopted without the appropriate due diligence and caution.
On the upside, surveys reach a wide and geographically dispersed audience. You can cut and dice the results to compare demographic groups, teams or roles and they are very effective when establishing a measurable baseline. On the flip side, surveys are diabolically risky if the results are used in isolation to inform corporate decision making and actions.
Take the 2004 Snorre Alpha for example, where there was an uncontrolled gas blow out under the seabed. Fortunately, of the 216 people on the platform, no-one was injured. What's interesting is that just 6 months' prior, the organisation performed a safety survey and was assessed as a 'generative' culture. Yes, that's right... they came up roses! Yet, the post incident investigation interviews revealed significant issues with the company's culture (1). Whilst some level of hindsight bias might account for the discrepancy, this incident is a classic illustration of just how dangerous relying on survey data alone can be.
I'd like to believe that the inspiration for this growing desire for feedback is linked with a sense of corporate responsibility to engage and listen to employees - a highly valuable exercise. Yet, too often, survey processes are poorly designed and executed with superficial efforts to act on the results. Warning! This can and will do more harm than good.
The survey design in itself is problematic - if you don't ask the right questions you won't get the right answers.
I recently reviewed a report that claimed to measure project performance and safety. I was gobsmacked! 170 pages of colourful graphs with the spread of scores for each survey item along with pages and pages of verbatim responses to the open text questions. Not the slightest attempt to theme or deliver any meaningful interpretation of the results. Seriously? Where would you start on understanding the essence of the findings never mind how to develop a remedial response. My bet is that this very expensive report is collecting dust on a shelf somewhere. A waste of time, money and the worthy contribution made by employees which invariably leads to apathy and lost motivation to participate in future.
When adopting survey methods, be aware and consider:
A few tips when designing your future survey process: