As 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.