As a manager for more than 20 years, I've received plenty of feedback about my performance in that role. Some of it was positive, but most of what I remember coming from the people I managed focused on how I needed to be better. I remember early in my career when a woman I managed looked me in the eye and said, “You’ve been a real a-hole lately.” It was a harsh bit of feedback but she was right. I wish I could say that I immediately responded appropriately. Looking back, I’m pretty confident I didn’t—at least not right away.
One of the reasons I’ve always loved employee surveys is the potential effect the results can have on leaders. In some cases, a survey is the first time a leader truly hears and considers the perspective of employees. It can truly change their mindset and view of the organization. Notice, I said “potential effect.” The kind of impact I describe is only possible when those leaders are committed to and care about hearing the employees’ feedback. If you’re reading this post, you’ve probably had many experiences where that simply wasn’t the case.
You’ve probably heard (or used) this phrase before: survey fatigue. Before surveys became as common as they are today, if your company conducted an annual employee engagement survey, it was considered progressive. Those were different times.
Conventional wisdom is that employee surveys must be anonymous to be effective. If employees don’t believe that their responses are anonymous, they might not complete the survey. And even if they do, they won’t be honest because it’s too risky to tell the truth. Therefore, to get more candid and accurate feedback, the perception of anonymity is required. That’s what we’ve been told for decades and we’ve come to accept it as fact. But there’s a problem. All of this conventional wisdom might be wrong.
One of the common worries about employee surveys is that people won’t tell the truth. When you spend the money and go through the trouble of doing a survey, you want to believe that you’re getting the truth about what’s going on. Here’s some bad news. People lie on surveys. Sometimes they tell small lies and sometimes they tell big ones. Sometimes they don’t even know they’re lying. In fact, even on customer surveys, some experts suggest that as many as 50% of people are less than truthful in their answers. So, even when people have little to nothing at stake, they aren’t totally honest.
My job requires that I fly pretty frequently. Over the past few years, the airline I use most often has adopted the practice of sending me a survey following every flight. The email with the survey invite usually says something about how much they value my opinion. When these first started showing up in my inbox, I would occasionally respond. Typically, it was after a less-than-optimal flight experience when I was a little disgruntled. These were the moments when it seemed my feedback would be most valuable. Or at least, it was the time I most wanted them to hear me so future flights might be better. I took them at their word that my opinion mattered to them (although I’ll admit to being skeptical). Each time, after clicking send on the survey, I’d wait for some kind of response. I’m still waiting.
A well-executed employee survey can be a powerful tool to improve engagement and performance in any organization. At the same time, a poorly executed survey can actually create confusion and disillusionment that negatively impacts these same outcomes. As you prepare for your next survey, take care to avoid these mistakes to ensure you make a positive impact instead of an unintended negative one.