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Oct 11, 2011

Organizations of all sizes use employee attitude surveys to gauge employee satisfaction, engagement, or work-life happiness in some way.

However, years of anecdotal information as well as our research reveal that these surveys are failing to provide any benefit. Considering the heavy investment of money and time, we need to take a closer look at the reality of employee attitude surveys.

Perceptions of value: out of touch?

In the recent survey conducted with our partner, HRmarketer, 45 percent of respondents felt the survey their organization was using had little or no value for managers or employees, while only 24.5 percent felt there was value in the surveys.

Even more significant was the perception of the executive and vice president-level respondents.

Of the senior management group, 48 percent reported the surveys they used were highly valuable, while only 19 percent of all other responders felt the same. This disparity can have negative implications as the rank and file may come to perceive that the senior people are out of touch with reality, resulting in reduced commitment and engagement in the workplace.

In regards to our questions about whether employee attitude surveys provide an honest and accurate employee assessment of the organization, about 48 percent of all respondents felt the surveys did not provide an honest and accurate employee assessment, compared to only 31 percent who did. When research uncovers a 48 percent belief that an instrument is not honest or accurate, some critical attention is required.

Using the data

Perhaps the most alarming feedback from our survey was that most managers and supervisors did not have any idea how to use the data to improve future performance. The results confirmed what we have heard anecdotally for years — 58 percent of all respondents stated that the employee attitude survey data does not or only slightly helps managers know what behaviors or practices to change in order to positively influence future survey results.

Once again, the senior level respondents see this same issue in a more favorable light than other respondents — 30 percent of them reported the survey data consistently helped managers, while only 17 percent of all other respondents felt the same.

When managers and supervisors are required to improve these scores and yet, at the same time, can’t determine the specific behaviors and management practices that influence the score, we can predict that they will feel frustrated and cynical.

Our report revealed that the five-point scale was the most predominately used scale for employee attitude surveys. The seven- and three-point scales were also used, albeit not as widely. The 10-point scale was the least-used scale to represent the survey results.

6 recommendations

1. Senior managers should take a long, hard look at their engagement surveys and consider whether they are truly accomplishing their purpose. What is the return on investment for the current approach? Is it just a “tick the box” event, or is the rank and file perceiving surveys as important and providing useful information for improvement?

2. Specifically define what you want to learn from the data. Narrow the focus to ensure the questions are designed to articulate the behaviors and practices that influence the organization’s desired outcomes. This means giving specific definitions to terms like engagement, satisfaction, happy employee, and the like.

3. Put rigor into the design of the questions. This requires knowing the difference between “lagging indicators” (Lags) and “leading indicators” (Leads). Lags are the resultant opinions/judgments of an event or situation that have taken place. All too often, survey questions are asking employees lag questions.

A typical question we often see is: “Would you recommend this organization to friends and family members as a good place to work?” 

A lag question prompts an opinion or judgment from the respondent, but reasons or causes that influenced the answer are not provided. Providing a manager with employee opinions/judgments without providing the underlying “why” sends the manager on a scavenger hunt, searching for solutions to the lag measure.

4. Instead, design effective lead questions. Leads are the situations, events or practices that significantly influence the lags. Obviously, to develop effective lead questions, you need to be clear on what lags you are attempting to measure. For example: “My manager takes timely corrective action with employees who are not performing well.”

Effective lead questions tell you if the goal or objective is being influenced in a positive or negative manner. Lag questions only tell you how well the goal or objective was achieved. This is a critical distinction.

Obviously, if an employee feels that their manager “takes timely corrective action with employees who are not performing well” they are more likely to feel better about “recommending this organization to friends and family members as a good place to work.” The first is within the manager’s control; the second is not.

5. Determine vital behaviors to design lead questions: coaching, taking disciplinary actions, etc. The breakthrough research from influence experts such as Dr. Ethna Reid is that improvement and change come from focusing on just a few vital behaviors.

Survey results usually do a very poor job of identifying the vital behaviors managers need to change to improve quality of work-life and overall business results. Without such information, management is not equipped to solve employee satisfaction issues.

6. Consider using a 10-point scale for attitude surveys. While other scales can and will work, research by Bain & Company and others has shown clear and practical advantages to the 10-point scale.

What’s the point?

Our findings tell us that much more rigor and attention are required regarding the how and why of employee surveys. Conducting an employee attitude survey solely for the sake of having one creates unintended consequences that may cause more harm than good.

It seems that senior-level management live in a “happier world” relative to the rank and file when it comes to the value and usefulness of employee attitude surveys.The rank and file often feel these surveys are inaccurate or untrue. They are provided with information that does not tell them what to change—only that people are dissatisfied — and they wind up “chasing the score” instead of being equipped to make meaningful changes.

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