Survey Says

| | Leading Organizations

survey1As I work with a client on a project involving a survey, I am reflecting on all of the employee opinion surveys I have been involved with through the years as both an employee and a consultant.

I find myself thinking about the real purpose of surveys – are they being used  to empower progress or as a crutch when communication isn’t working?

Whether you are among those completing a survey or among those asking the questions, you have an opportunity to choose whether you want to use this as an opportunity to lead or not.   Consider if the only way you think you can give or get straight feedback is to participate in or conduct an anonymous survey then what does that say about your leadership?

There are 3 major pitfalls to be mindful of when you intend to use a survey as a way to inform your focus as a leader:

1.  A survey does not foster personal responsibility. In fact it can reinforce a victim mentality and fuel any underlying “us” vs. “them” dynamics.   “Us” refers to the people who have no power to affect change and “them” refers to those whose fault “it” is and the only ones with the power to affect change.  If “us” and “them” can’t talk to each other you had best start there.

2.  People do not take ownership of a solving a problem they anonymously identify. They often don’t even consider that they are both part of the problem and part of the solution.  I’ve seen many cases where 90% of people say something like “poor communication is a big problem”, but when asked do they personally communicate well 90% say they do.  The math just doesn’t work.  Yet it is so common to think I am doing ok, but since I think this is a big problem “they” must not be.

3.  Plans devised to fix poor results based on a survey often fail. There is no clear cut cause and effect in human systems.  Yet we try to analyze results and come up with action plans as though there is.  We often form committees to address problems identified, yet  no one on the committee personally owns the problem and how they might be contributing to it.  How can you possibly effectively address a problem you don’t own?

It’s not that I don’t think surveys serve a purpose.  Rather I think we depend too heavily on what the “survey says” when attempting to understand the current state and determining where to focus our future efforts.   Surveys can be a great tool to help us see patterns, but the results of a survey will never tell the whole story about either the current state nor effectively serve as a guide for the future.

Understanding, the kind that leads to effective action plans and meaningful change, requires dialogue among committed stakeholders; real, honest, meaningful conversation about the issues we face together and the dreams we share for our future.

Here are 3 things you can do to leverage surveys to actually make a difference.

1.   Skip the focus groups and train your leaders, formal and informal, to facilitate effective and satisfying dialogue. Using a professional facilitator may still be a good idea, but partner with them so you get better at dialogue from the process rather than use the facilitator as a crutch because people can’t or won’t talk to each other.

2.  Dialogue about the results in the context of the future you say you want. The only reason to fix a problem is because it is in the way of your future.  Maintaining a future focus can help you discern what is most important to focus on and can help prevent dwelling on what happened and why it happened in the past.  You can’t change the past, so why bother spending so much time analyzing it?

3.  Focus on what you are creating rather than what you need to fix. Spend a lot more time in the follow up after the survey focusing on your goals and dreams and how you are going to achieve them rather than on how you are going to fix problems and remove barriers.  When a team is focused on a goal that truly matters to them it is amazing how they seem to find a way past the problems and barriers without even focusing on them.

Surveys don’t communicate, people do.  A survey can open the door to straight communication, but it can never replace the need for committed conversation.


Enter A Comment

Robyn   |   07 October 2011   |   Reply

Well said, Susan. Couldn’t agree more. Another driver of surveys is looking for quick fixes, which do not resolve systemic issues, do not ignite enthusiasm among respondents, and do not foster ownership. As you suggest, it’s the conversations and the stories that underpin the data points that need to surface if meaning and sense are to be made, and commitment and responsibility are considered desirable qualities for engagement and action.

Susan Mazza   |   21 October 2011   |   Reply

Great points Robyn. You have me thinking about whether the very nature of seeing survey results tabulated oversimplifies the feedback in a way that creates an illusion that the problems are simple and quick fixes are possible.

Jenifer Olson   |   09 October 2011   |   Reply

Great points, Susan.

I’ve always wondered about the validity and usefulness of anonymous surveys and the whole 360 feedback thing. At times, I think this type of feedback tends to legitimize petty sniping and personal agendas that have nothing to do with making the business better.

Talking with each other openly and honestly on how to create a better future is the only real way forward. And *that* has to flow from the top down through all the layers of an organization, IMHO. 🙂


Susan Mazza   |   21 October 2011   |   Reply

Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jenifer. I have seen both ends of the spectrum, especially on 360 degree feedback, from petty sniping to substantive and useful feedback. Any time there is a hierarchy people will be hesitant to “call it like they see it” which is why surveys can be useful and sometimes are necessary to get the right conversations started. How those in positions of power relate to the feedback they do get will determine whether the opening facilitates progress or shuts down the system.

Dr. Ada (@PhDAda)   |   19 October 2011   |   Reply

Totally agree Susan that meaningful dialogue is much better. As Robyn said, Stories are priceless. And the conversation around what they want to create, how, and who will take responsibility is what will make for engagement. Thanks for a great post!

Susan Mazza   |   21 October 2011   |   Reply

Thanks Dr. Ada. You point out an important context in the conversations that need to happen – to be productive they must be based in what you want for the future and a willingness to take responsibility for that future rather than a reflection on the past and simply naming the problems.

Monica Diaz   |   20 October 2011   |   Reply

Amen, Susan! So many companies hide behind surveys, 360 feedback and such. In an organization where openness is the norm, the surveys would only reveal what people already know and allow for checkpoints. But again, it is not the surveys that are to blame, it is the people not communicating. So easy to blame the tools! Great post and thinking as always, my friend.

Susan Mazza   |   21 October 2011   |   Reply

Yes Monica, it is so easy to blame the tools and hide behind them, too. Thanks for stopping by!