I was talking with a friend about how Ann Arbor, the college town where I live, is home to many companies with iconic culture. There are books and case studies about these companies: Zingerman's, Menlo Innovations, and one that doesn't have a book yet but is book-worthy: Atomic Object. They call their employees "atoms" and have a periodic table that lists employee names!
How do the leaders in these organizations know their culture is sustaining, or evolving in the right direction? Do they institute listening systems that provide the leaders with insight into their people and culture? Do they listen to employees in such a way that everyone feels heard?
I don't know about these three companies, but I have talked to business leaders and HR leaders at many other organizations and know that sometimes, even companies with the best cultures hesitate to implement systematic, scientifically proven methods to gauge their culture and collect employee feedback.
I'm talking about employee feedback surveys. What makes leaders dislike employee surveys — and what’s the counterargument to their reasoning?
Do Any of These Statements Ring True for You?
1. I do listening tours, so I don't need to do surveys. That's great, and you should continue doing them. But what about employees who don't feel comfortable sharing, or whose trust you've not yet earned?
2. Negative feedback hurts. Hearing negative feedback is hard. Even the most seasoned leaders and the wisest of us can feel a jab of pain. Some negative feedback is natural, however. Think about it: if everyone is providing glowing reports, something is wrong. People are trying to please you or someone else. You can't please all of the people all of the time. People are different; your organization can't be a perfect place to work for everyone.
Yet constructive criticism can be positive. Research suggests negative feedback may actually be more beneficial for your company in the long run. It can a) Fuel creativity b) Improve performance c) Produce positive changes in behavior.
Case in point: The Cleveland Clinic, a world-renowned medical center, ranked near the bottom in a patient survey on staff responsiveness and caregiver communication. The Cleveland Clinic took these results to heart, systematically overhauling operational and caregiving practices. Three years later it was back on top, and its "Patients First" mantra became the healthcare industry's gold standard.
3. We did feedback surveys in the past and they were useless. Chances are the problem was not with the survey itself but with how it was designed, administered, and analyzed. A carefully designed and well analyzed survey will:
- Remove bias/pet agendas/bloated results.
- Be statistically accurate. Resist comparing apples and oranges.
- Empower you as a leader with deep insights about what's going well and what needs to be fixed, rather than just yielding reports and dashboards.
- Uncover employee groups that may be feeling left out, or do not feel like they are being treated fairly.
4. Employees have "survey fatigue." Actually, that's not accurate. They're "fatigued" from a lack of action — or they don't trust that there won't be retaliation if they tell an unpleasant truth. The solution to "survey fatigue"? Outsourcing. Choose a people analytics team that ensures employee confidentiality. And respect the feedback they provide by taking definitive action. Aim to implement some quick wins to show you're really listening.
5. We don't have the bandwidth to do anything about the feedback. This is a hard one. People are your company's most important investment. If you don't have time to listen to them and take action to improve your culture and employee experience, your long-term success and growth is a big question mark. If you are using this argument, you are adding to the misery of your workforce — and I would so far as to say that it is unethical behavior for a leader.
Surveys can be flawed...but they are powerful when used correctly
Surveys can be flawed because of problems with the design, administration, and analysis. But that doesn't take away from the scientific and scalable insights it can give you when deployed correctly.
Don't let cultural issues simmer. Uncover the problems and address them. Confirm your assumptions, celebrate the strengths. Build and sustain a culture where employees thrive. And watch your company grow to become an example other leaders want to use as their model.