organizational development and change tools and techniques for consultants and others

Making employee surveys useful

by David Zatz, Ph.D. (Toolpack Consulting)

Surveys can be used as a change tool in several ways —above and beyond the usual goal of gathering information.

First, simply having the survey tells people that change is coming, and that something will happen. That is a key part of the change process, known as “unfreezing,”which is needed for people to consider doing things differently.

One other subtle way that surveys affect change is by telling people what is considered most important. In short, what you measure becomes important; or, as the adage goes, “you get what you measure.” That’s one more reason to choose your questions carefully.

In addition to that, the way the survey is done sends a clear message, and not necessarily the desired one! People do react to the language used in announcements, to the nature and type of questions, to the process of taking the survey, and to the speed of communication and change once it’s over.

To delve further into process issues: not telling employees the results of a survey is frustrating, but, worse, it tells them their input is not really wanted. That can result in disengagement, apathy, and “working by the rules,” not positive outcomes in an increasingly competitive and dynamic world.

One way to provide the results is to summarize them into a paragraph or two and send them out as an item in a newsletter; they often say that actions are being considered, but usually don’t point to concrete examples. This is better than nothing, but is sending a signal that employees are passive in the change.

A better way is to use “feedback sessions” to tell respondents what the results of the survey were, often in some detail and providing information specific to each unit. However, if the actions of organizational leaders are not described, people may still feel the survey is a waste of time - even if actions are being taken (because people don’t have any way to link management decisions to the survey information.)

The solution

Surveys can actively engage people if three principles are used:

For example, after reporting the findings, ask the audience to draw conclusions and come up with action steps. The survey expert’s role, after about twenty minutes of presenting information and ways to use it, is to guide the team through data-based decisions, ensuring that they set clear deadlines, responsibilities, and follow-through dates. The results may surprise veteran consultants.

One interesting approach is to work with small, cross-functional teams and coach them to present the survey data. This can lead to an astonishing amount of enthusiasm, and many plans for using the information in their everday work and planning. People can also learn much more about surveys and the survey process this way.

Though this may well be the ideal way to present data, not everyone has an internal consultant who has the time to work with small groups on process and survey details. For that reason, the rest of this article is dedicated to the more traditional feedback session.

Purposes of feedback sessions

Feedback sessions are needed to provide closure to the survey project and to show that the time spent on the surveys was not wasted. Executives can gain credibility and spur action (by example) by showing specifically how they have used the survey to make decisions.

The feedback session

When scheduling the session, describe its purpose: to review survey findings, ask for views of the implications (causes, problems, strengths, trends, etc.), and create action plans to address issues raised by the survey.

It is best to set up feedback sessions with plenty of time; a morning or afternoon, or a day or two, depending on the scope of the project. Prevent interruptions; many experts suggest having the meetings off-site, where people can think “out of the box” and avoid interruptions. Cell-phones should be off.

Set up clear ground rules. For example, the session should be genuinely open, and people should be able to participate without fear of retribution or attack. (Don’t make any promises you can’t keep! It helps to have an outsider present to warn when managers become defensive). The manager must create a feeling that people can freely ask questions, discuss issues, propose ideas, and take on new responsibilities.

Briefly review the goals of the survey project and how it was conducted, including when; how surveys were distributed, and who they were given to; and who analyzed the data. The goals may include increasing effectiveness, learning customer or staff needs, spotting minor problems before they became large headaches, initiating continuous improvement, etc. (Having small teams of other people get and present this information may help to increase participation and interest, especially if you refrain from presenting your point of view during or after their talks).

Along the way, there may be questions about the validity of the numbers. A natural reaction is to quickly dismiss the questions; even experienced consultants do this. Addressing validity issues is important, and is worth the effort of seeing from the employee’s perspective and having to review one’s own rationale (or to defer to an expert, or even to admit to a flaw!). If one person questions the data, others might quietly do the same, even if they don’t speak up. If one person’s concerns are brushed aside or steamrollered, it sets a negative tone which is hard to overcome.

Starting the action planning session

One good way to start the action planning session is by asking for help in solving problems. Acknowledge that other people may be closer to the situation, or may have more experience with different parts of it. Asking for help may increase the others’ respect for you, because it shows that you have some respect for them; and because people tend to like those who they have helped. (Benjamin Franklin once made an enemy into a friend by borrowing a book from him). People are also much more likely to accept and to actively support solutions which they had a part in creating.

If people at the meeting do not have the power to make decisions and implement plans, be honest about these limitations and tell them that you will be using their input to make these plans yourself, or to bring them up to a higher level. However, if you (or the people at the higher level) are not really serious about implementing the proposed actions unless they were what you were planning to do anyway, forget about the action planning session. It is better to have an open, honest feedback session without action planning than a session that raises expectations and then dashes them.

Action planning

Instead of having formal minutes, notes should be taken on large sheets of paper so they can be visible to everyone, but can still be transcribed later.

Usually, some people say they cannot change anything, that other areas must be changed first. I have countered this by asking, “Well, what can we do? ... What’s stopping us from doing that right now?” This has a tremendous motivating effect. If we cannot do everything we want, we can do some of the things we want.

If the people from the other area are in the room, you have a tremendous bonus. I have seen people pointing fingers across the room, and simply brought them together: “Who can do this, if you can’t? Are they here today? ... John, how do you feel about doing this? Can you work together on it?” Long-standing communications problems have been resolved that easily, in a single meeting, with lasting (over a year and counting) effects.

It is essential for everyone to feel that their opinions and suggestions are valued, and that they are respected and taken seriously. Watch yourself for condescending, authoritative, and defensive actions or words, while making positive comments about useful suggestions and recognizing contributions. Practice “active listening” — the art of actively, intentionally concentrating on what people are saying, and considering how it can work and help rather than any problems it might cause or any difficulty in implementing it. Often, people can find a way around problems and barriers if they really believe in something and have a reason to invest their time and energy in it.

Seemingly trivial issues can be important. Many employees are most annoyed by the problems that never go away: the drip in the faucet, the sign-off process for subscriptions. If the survey spotlights problems that can easily be fixed, immediately fix them, no matter how small. When you visibly and immediately use a survey, you show respect for your employees and increase enthusiasm.

Responding to a suggestion by rewording and summarizing it shows you have heard and understood it, and gives other people a chance to clarify or add to it. It also helps to write down suggestions on poster sheets; this also comes in handy when the time comes to actually write down what was suggested and accomplished at the meeting.

If ideas are not usable, and the group believes they are, present your points not as absolutes, but as barriers. For example, “This is a good idea, and but...” Someone in the group might have thought of a way around it, or might be able to come up with a similar plan that is do-able. I have often been surprised by how quickly seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome; and I have often surprised other people by getting around them myself!

After a number of possible solutions have been created, they can be discussed and prioritized. If there are a large number of ideas, ask for the group to help in sorting them out. A common aid is using a table with four cells, with importance set against ease or speed. The group can then discuss the pros and cons of each idea, starting with the “easy-very important” group. It is essential to tackle some of the “easy” issues, even if they are not very important, to gain momentum and quickly, visibly use the work of the group.

People should be able to come up with workable actions to address problems and enhance strengths, including some which can be put into effect right away. It is essential to follow through on these items as soon as the session is over, and enact at least a few of them within the week. The ideal is to come out of a feedback session with several ad hoc committees working on specific tasks which are within their authority, and several decisions ready to be put into effect.

The final part of the feedback/action planning session is actually deciding who will do what, and when. Many people find coming up with recommendations to be sufficient; and that is fine, if the group does not have the power to make changes on its own. Frequently, though, the group includes people who do have power, if not over everything, then at least over their own areas. It is fine to mix recommendations to higher authorities with specific actions that group members can accomplish on their own.

Go through the list of agreed-upon action steps, and ask the group who will volunteer to handle the first one. Ask that person when they think they can have it done, and mark their name and the date next to the item. Then ask when they will be able to report on preliminary progress, even if it’s only considering exactly how they will do it, or discussing it with someone else. Mark that as a follow-through date. Repeat this for each of the actions, until everyone’s plate is full. Do not force anyone to volunteer through intimidation or peer pressure, and do not let anyone take on too many tasks; the important thing is not to get people to agree to do things, it is for them to actually carry them out!

Finally, schedule a meeting for two weeks or a month afterwards. This ensures both heightens commitment and assures that stalled projects are re-examined.

A small celebration is in order. People are tired but enthusiastic if all has gone well, and need time to wind down and to discuss any leftover concerns or ideas with other people.

Following through

The next day, distribute the action steps, volunteers, deadlines, and follow-through dates to everyone in the group. Provide a chance to comment on and revise them.

Make sure actions can actually be carried out within the deadlines. Informally speak with people who have unreasonable deadlines, remembering that the final word is theirs.

If goals were set, make sure they can be measured. It is often beneficial to start measuring key performance indicators before the survey or feedback session, so you can measure progress. Using key performance indicators is also a way to measure the effectiveness of particular changes.

If the report includes actions that must be taken by other people, put them last, and specify what actions are to be taken by the group to accomplish them. These are often forgotten, but they are a key in empowering people to do more.

The report should include a summary of the survey results, such as key strengths and problem areas, most frequently given suggestions or comments, and common answers to open-ended questions.

Take advantage of surveys to have people gather together, make decisions, and implement them. That’s what surveys are for.


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