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Dec 20, 2022

Some of you may well have read a recent report from Leadership IQ that reveals only 22% of companies are having success with their employee engagement survey.

Why this low level of success? Well, the report identifies numerous problems, ranging from unactionable questions to using the wrong scale and even keeping the results a secret.

Beware the lack of open-ended questions

But one survey failure that directly impacts employee retention is the lack, or misuse, of open-ended questions.

Leadership IQ found that about a third of surveys don’t use open-ended questions at all. And, amongst those that do, HRDs often word their questions in such a way that little actionable data is able to be gathered.

To me this is a massive missed opportunity. We also know from the study, Frustration At Work In 2022, that the hassles and roadblocks facing employees are so severe that around 60% say these frustrations make them want to look for other jobs. And about 83% of people say that if their frustrations were fixed, they would be significantly happier in their job.

Given the importance of fixing employee frustrations and the misuse of open-ended survey questions, there’s an incredible opportunity to solve both issues simultaneously.

So as we rapidly come to the end of 2022, and are thinking about 2023, I would offer this advice: On your next survey, instead of the usual vague questions, ask the following open-ended question: “What’s your one work frustration that you believe your manager has the authority to fix immediately?”

Fixing frustrations

This question works because it focuses on surfacing fixable employee frustrations.

One of the reasons open-ended questions often fail to generate actionable results is because so many of the suggestions address issues that HR executives or managers are unable to fix (at least, not without moving mountains).

Employees may well offer suggestions for improving their working experience – along the lines of prioritizing emotional wellness over productivity targets; or doing away with performance reviews; or moving to more meritocratic pay-for-performance compensation; and even improving collaboration enterprise-wide.

All of those are perfectly valid suggestions, but how many employee engagement task forces do you know that have the political wherewithal to take quick and decisive action on any of these those issues? Not many – I would hazard to guess – if any.

But when you ask employees to pick a frustration that they’ve personally experienced, that they’re pretty sure their manager could fix, the issues you’ll see will read more like:

  • My coworker takes credit for my work and when I try to explain this to my boss, she tells me that tattling is for children
  • My boss never leaves his office and won’t resolve the rampant conflicts we have on our team
  • My boss doesn’t know where to find answers but he still wants me to run all requests through him, which delays me for days rather than letting me go directly to the other departments
  • We haven’t killed off any activities that are non-value-adding, so in addition to doing important work, we’re also doing activities that are useless and wastes of time (e.g., I have to write three reports every week that literally nobody ever reads)

Asking localizes action

 Asking for an actual frustration localizes the actions to be taken to the departmental, rather than organization-wide, level.

While some issues will emerge that are far more difficult to fix than others, at least the vast majority of comments will be somewhat fixable.

Of course, managers will have to make some changes too, and sometimes these changes will be difficult. For example, in the study Why Company Values Are Falling Short, we discovered that around a third of people believe that highly skilled employees can always or frequently get away with not living the company values. If that’s taking place in one of your departments, it has to be corrected, and that may take some serious coaching with the manager.

The point however, is that if bosses respond well, employees are about 12 times more likely to recommend the company as a great employer.

An employee survey won’t magically fix the issues causing employees to quit. But, if done right, your survey can pinpoint the exact issues that need fixing.

Once that’s accomplished, all it takes is a bit of effort to work the plan and retain your employees. Here’s to 2023, and doing surveys better.