Should we do an employee survey?

Should we do an employee survey?

I always say great conversations start with a question, and this one was offered up to me recently and it really got me thinking . . . . .   Why should we do an employee survey?

Let me first state a couple of core beliefs I have about employee surveys.

First, talent management is about having great conversations.  Conversations are a place where two people come together and do equal amounts of listening and sharing.   To accomplish it, great conversations start with a question.  Especially for people in power (leaders, parents, etc.),  before you respond to anything you need to know what the other person is thinking and/or feeling.  As soon as your opinion hits the table, it changes the conversation.  Culture is built one relationship at a time, so doing this listening / sharing / conversation thing well is critical to people feeling good about their role, feeling part of something special, knowing what they need to be working on, etc  .  .  .   FYI – this is often called Employee Engagement.

Secondly, an employee survey is the leadership team asking two general questions of each person in their organization:  How are you feeling?  How are we doing as leaders?  When the answers are rolled up by team, division, entire organization, some great things emerge (your organizational strengths) and some themes that point you towards areas where you can improve your culture / leadership also emerge.  What you do with those answers tells the organization you are listening, and ultimately makes people FEEL like someone is listening to them and willing to respond to their feedback. (ie.  your opinion matters)  The debrief is to find a way to start another conversation to establish some priorities around  – What do we need to KEEP doing?  What do we need to START doing?  What do we need to STOP doing?  Notice I always use WE because this is not a leadership to do list.  Culture is everyone working to make your organization a special place to work.

Here are a few questions that I ask clients:

Q1: Give me your gut answer – Why do you think you need to do one?  What would you want out of a survey?

 Take a look at the answer and if contains any messages like “have to” or “always done one” or “they did one so we should” then I would recommend thinking through it a little more. By themselves, these are the wrong reasons.

Was one of your answers to the second question “to identify ineffective leaders”?   Safety is critical in these surveys, and leadership effectiveness should be measured by performance of the team (metrics) and cultural fit (which can be assessed by a survey).  If your metrics and/or accountability for performance are weak, a survey is not the place to start.  Focus your efforts on one on one ongoing management conversations and your annual performance conversations.

If your answer to the second question is rooted in a discontent that you are feeling or you have had some surprises in outlying divisions where key people have left suddenly that surprised you but did not surprise the people that were left (or maybe they were thankful), then there is probably an issue in how effectively the leadership team is in listening to the entire organization and identifying opportunities to strengthen culture.  Any employee survey can help address this, and an ROI number can probably be determined.

Q2:  What do you think you do well as leaders?  What makes this place special?

Q3:  How do you think your people would answer the above Q2 questions?  What is your confidence level, based on your current habits around leaders listening to concerns AND cascading those positive and negative themes up the organization so the leadership team can continue to maintain/build culture through strategy?

Q4:  Is that confidence level from Q3 good enough for you to say you are effectively listening to your people? 

If yes, spend your time and resources somewhere else. 

If NO, then a survey can help you listen and put some reasons around both the positive and the negative vibes you are getting from your people.

A few comments to those organizations that are growing quickly . . . . . .

My experience is that there are two things that get in the way of listening well – growth (bigger and locations) and management layers.  If you have 4+ locations it is difficult for any leader to get there often enough to establish the familiarity and relationships with the team so they can get an accurate reading of what people are feeling.  Habits like monthly breakfasts with groups, showing up at lunch and sitting with different people weekly (or daily) are all habits that replace the need for surveys.  This is just not a CEO habit, but a habit for all executive leaders.

Management layers make it difficult for accurate information to move up the organization.  If you have 4 or more layers of management (CEO – frontline supervisor) it is hard to move opinions/feedback up and down the organization effectively.  Remember the telephone game as kids?  A message gets passed around a circle until the person who started the message gets it back.  Is the end message ever the same as when it started?  Rarely.  Hmmmmm . . . . . .    Layers create the same situation.  If you have 4 or more layers of management it makes listening and reacting a little bit like the telephone game.

So the bottom line is that the answer to Do we need to do a survey is . . . . It depends.

What other reasons or resources would you add to this post based on your experience?