Survey Fatigue

I’m not a big fan of annual employee engagement surveys. I dislike the habit and ritual that lies behind them. They are positively dangerous when driven by ‘learners’ and they are massively overpriced and disruptive when driven by ‘experts’.

I worry that they offer the illusion of proactivity and action to the executive team and the spectre of failed promises to everyone else. And by the time the analysis is done and workshops rolled out, it’s all a bit tired and out of date. On top of that they are the ultimate time-suck on busy employees who have got a lot more to worry about than completing a 70 question survey.

pig on scalesAt the risk of exposing myself as a bit of a limp wrister, I think that intuition is a much undervalued tool. I think there is much truth in the old rural cliché, (which admittedly I have slightly bastardised) – ‘you fatten a pig by feeding it, not by weighing it’. Any farmer can tell just by looking at his drove whether or not they are eating enough.

There’s no escaping the fact that some people quite like data. Not everybody feels quite so comfortable with trusting intuition. So naturally I accept there must be some middle ground here.

So how about an approach that provides the same data you can get from an annual survey in ‘real time’ at zero cost?

Many companies use Net Promoter Score (NPS) to provide quick feedback from their customers. Its key selling point is it is quick, easy and most importantly, it respects your customers’ time by only asking them a single, straightforward question – “How likely is it that you would recommend [your company] to a friend or colleague?”

Many companies (including Apple) have adapted this approach and deployed it internally (eNPS). I’ve done it myself and it works. Once a month send one twelfth of the company a two-question survey, making sure that no member of staff is surveyed more than once a year.

  1. “How likely is it that you would recommend [your company] as a place to work to a friend?” (provide a scale of 1 to 10)
  2. “Tell us more if you’d like to” (provide a free text box)

Use the same scoring mechanism used by NPS, which over time allows you to plot your performance. The verbatim feedback provides a rich seam of regular feedback that is fresh and ‘in the moment’.

The most important thing is that you examine and share the monthly feedback with those tasked with improving organisational effectiveness and development and you put it to good use. Regular strategic and tactical interventions are made possible by adopting this kind of agile alternative to the annual behemoth.

Winner winner chicken dinner…

Have your say

How hard should you ‘encourage’ people to complete your annual staff survey?

Over the years I have tried very hard. Intricate communications plans involving teaser campaigns, beautifully crafted invitations, videos, posters, screensavers, FAQs, emails, intranet, leaderboards, targeted communications to senior leadership, line managers and blanket emails to everyone in the company before, during and after the survey. Was it really necessary?

I’ve worked closely with four specialist employee survey providers over the last decade and have always been lead to believe that the more you can do to ‘encourage’ participation the better.

The higher the response rate the better quality the feedback and data – and a really high response rate is the sign of how engaged your workforce is right?

You’ll notice the use of quotation marks. It’s because I feel a sense of irony in using the word ‘encourage’.  If the literal meaning of ‘encourage’ includes incentivising, cajoling, pleading, shaming and who knows, perhaps even bullying, the quotation marks would not have been necessary.

Looking back I have a sneaking suspicion I tried too hard.

I believe there is a sweet spot, probably somewhere around the 75% to 85% mark, where all those enthusiastic and willing to take the survey have done so.

In the same vein, I suspect that if you took a cut of the engagement score at the halfway point and compared it to the final score, it would be higher. This despite the belief in some quarters that “the least satisfied people, or those with specific issues, tend to respond first.”

I believe that the additional work required to secure the participation of people that don’t really want to is likely to result in a reduction in the quality and reliability of the data, and certainly in the engagement score (if that is important to you).

It’s human nature. If you are pushed into doing something you don’t really want to do your heart won’t be in it. You won’t do it properly – you’ll just be going through the motions. And if you are seriously miffed at being boxed into a corner, you may even decide to punish the person who has been ‘encouraging’ you through your survey responses.

Naturally I went looking for evidence to support my thinking on this. Whilst I believe gut instinct is a much under-rated attribute in business, I also value the importance of hard fact and empirical evidence. Guess what. I found nothing.

I found plenty of evidence of my earlier assertion that the higher the response rate the higher the levels of engagement and satisfaction. I found no real evidence to confirm my suspicion that you can overdo the ‘encouragement’.

The closest I came to it was a piece in HR Magazine a couple of months ago by Samantha Arnold from ETS:

“I have come across managers resorting to all sorts of tactics to make sure they achieve high response rates. The irony is that these managers are often the ones that have little interest in doing anything with the results…  to avoid it becoming a sideshow, we have advised our clients not to share response rate scores with their managers”.

Another interesting angle I came across was:

“… the fact that in some organisations employees choose not to complete the survey is important feedback information in its own right. We often find in organisations where there has historically been a lack of commitment to feedback, poor communications and a lack of resulting action that survey completion rates are the lowest.”

So presumably trying too hard to push participation may mask this natural inclination among some to not bother taking the survey, again rendering the feedback and data less valuable because it is papering over the cracks.

It strikes me that all you need to do is make sure that every member of staff knows about the survey, understands the importance of taking the opportunity to give their feedback, and has the opportunity to participate. Thereafter, if they want to participate they do, if they don’t they don’t.

And that’s fine because you’ll be getting the most reliable, authentic and untarnished feedback possible, and you can be sure when you roll in to action to address areas of concern that you will be focusing on all the right things.