Did You Say Feedback ? The Risks of Black-Hole Surveys

Overheard in the company restaurant the other day where two regional HR managers were having lunch:

“Here we go again. Another questionnaire we have to ask people to fill in. It seems like we just had one to fill in a while ago. We’ve got so much to do, who has time for this? And in any case, no one ever does anything about the results, so why bother? We get some kind of huge report, filled with statistics and it goes right into the drawer of our leaders’ desks!”

Does this sound familiar? How much time has been invested in deploying employee engagement surveys and internal climate surveys only to find the 175-page reports lost in the desk of some over-worked managers? How much money has been spent on what is supposed to be THE listening exercise of the year only to find that when the results are finally put together, some two months down the road, no one has planned what to do with them and they quickly sink down to priority 39. How many employees initially get excited and motivated by the idea of being able to input on questions that concern them directly only to slide back down into cynicism when nothing is done about what they had to say? How many disappointing return rates do companies get the second or third time round? And how many times does valuable employee feedback just fall into a black hole, never to be seen again except in the desk of an overworked HR manager?

This is the sad fate of too many internal surveys. The promise is there: “We’re going through tough times. Your opinion matters to us.” But delivering on that promise is another matter altogether. Results go into a black box and the questionnaire is often the last employees hear about the process. Under these circumstances, it would have been better not to initiate the process to begin with!

From data to action

I strongly believe that the only reason for asking busy people to fill in questionnaires is because the leadership of the organization is committed to doing something with the feedback. But we know this isn’t going to happen on the run. Too many other things come up along the way. And so when I launch this kind of survey with one of our ICM clients, I make sure that we build in a process that ensures leaders will take the data and transform it into actions at the different, relevant levels of the organization.

Concretely speaking, this means three things:

  • The goal: clearly identify from the outset the issues the organization feels it needs to address: integration, in a post-merger situation; motivation and engagement in a climate of transformation and lay-offs; management quality and motivation factors in a moment where people are being asked to “give the little bit more”, etc.
  • The report: Develop a questionnaire that targets these issues and that will provide actionable responses. And having done that, develop a report format that will not drown leaders in a morass of statistics, but that will allow them to rapidly understand the messages which are basically quite simple: what’s working well and what needs to be improved, and raise the questions that will allow them to start thinking of the responses and solutions they will provide.
  • The working meeting: Build into the process from the very start the working meetings with the different teams concerned by the feedback that will allow them to work through the data, identify priorities in what their employees are telling them, plan for where they can respond and for how they will communicate this to their people. ICM meetings of this sort are typically 1.5 days, with ½ day spent on working through the data and agreeing priority areas for improvements; ½ day spent on developing concrete projects to implement these improvements and ½ day spent on the implications for leadership behaviors and planning for communicating to employees.

I run many such processes with our clients. Each time country management teams, regional functional teams or global project teams are surprised by how effectively they can transform data into action. “I never expected we would be able to go through all that data so smoothly, drawing out the priorities and planning on how to respond”, we were told by an Asia region HR manager following the integration of a Chinese company, an internal climate survey and a 2-day leadership team seminar.

But guess what? They were!




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