How to gather employee insights you can actually use

Barely a week goes by without there being some reference to the good old employee survey - sometimes favourable, sometimes not so much.  This debate about whether surveys are good or not is directing attention away from the real issue.

So what is the real issue?  It's the answer to this question:   Do we really want to know what is really happening?  The facts, reality, the unedited truth?

The truth is difficult to come by at the best of times

Think of any situation that comes immediately to mind.  Then think about how much truth you really know about it.  Is it both true for you and for everyone else?  How do you know?  Did it involve others telling you what they thought?  What are the factors influencing their edited version of the story?

In the workplace, truth is notoriously difficult to come by because it sometimes conflicts with personal interest and survival.   When faced with this situation, it is a small percentage of people who will choose to put themselves in a worse-off position.

Depending on how it is conducted, a survey can either help to get to the truth, or help to keep it buried.

The truth is difficult to hear

As humans, we often get upset when we learn that someone has withheld information or lied.  But then we also get upset when we hear the unedited truth.  We are tough to please sometimes.

In the workplace, it can be even more difficult.  Whilst constructive criticism and feedback are encouraged in many workplaces, the line that separates it from personal criticism and biased judgement is indeed thin.

Going into a survey exercise with a thin skin is a recipe for not getting to the truth.

Can a group of people share a single truth?

Have you heard the story of the three statisticians who were hunting in the forest?

 On seeing their prey, the first statistician fires off a shot and misses to the left by a foot.  The second fires off a shot and misses to the right by a foot.  The third pats the others on the back and says 'well done everyone, by my calculations we nailed that sucker!'.

This is where surveys become a real problem.  They aggregate the results in a way that doesn't present the opinions of any single individual.  In a strange way, the aggregated result represents the opinion of no-one!

At best a survey is a representation of the situation within a company, rather than being an absolute representation.  Results are a compass pointing to next steps rather than revealing the destination itself.

So what are employee surveys good for?

Let's assume you are charged with helping your company improve its performance (which to some extent should be a goal of every Leader).  The things you are likely to be very interested in knowing are:

  1. what are the problems and opportunities that we need to know about right now?
  2. how are we going to discover them?

A survey is an excellent starting point for these questions.  Why?   Do you know that game that involves guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar?  The person with the closest guess wins the jar?  I never seem to win it!  Researchers have studied this exercise and each time, the research confirms that the average of all guesses combined is closer to the actual than the vast majority of individual guesses.

In the context of the workplace, the average of all employee guesses about what problems and opportunities are most pressing right now will be far more accurate than the guess of a few senior Leaders.

Employee Insights you can actually use

And finally to the point of this article.  Too many employee surveys are used for the purposes of measurement and evaluation.  Whilst this is not necessary a problem, the results are often seen as an absolute indication of what employees think.  This is the problem.  Just like a menu is only a representation of the food (you can't eat a menu and expect it to taste like the chocolate brownie in the photo), survey results are only a representation of what things are really like.  There are simply too many variables in play for survey results to be useful by themselves.

However, they are incredibly useful for pointing in the direction of problems and opportunities, and the next question (often using different techniques).  They are useful as part of the toolkit, not as the toolkit.

For HR Leaders who are looking to get more bang from their overall budget, they would be well placed to keep doing surveys, but to keep these costs to a minimum in order to free up budget for other insights processes and activities (think one to one discussions, team discussions, and ideas think tanks.  This is where the magic will come from.

If you are a Business Leader and you are responsible for improving workplace performance, perhaps you might be interested in our DIY Workplace Improvement Bundle.  For only $99, its a serious bargain.  Learn more.



About the author:


Jason Buchanan is the general manager for insights and innovation of Optimum Consulting Group, a trusted and leading HR consultancy firm in Australia. He is the brain behind Optimum Direct, a web portal of the best HR tools and software for small business. He is interested in finding solutions on how companies can continue to grow without destroying the things that are important to them (employees, customers, suppliers, reputation etc).