Most open-ended engagement survey questions fail to provide good data

Open-ended engagement survey questions typically provide few actual insights, argues Mark Murphy. He urges managers to ask more specific questions if they want to avoid getting fluff back.

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Mar 2, 2023

A new report on employee engagement surveys confirms what you probably already knew: that most companies only use one or two open-ended questions on their all-important employee engagement surveys.

But what might surprise you, however, is the fact that more than three-quarters of companies report they’re unable to actually use these open-ended questions to improve employees’ engagement.

There’s a very good reason for this.

Most open-ended survey questions are worded something like: “Please share any suggestions that you feel would improve employee satisfaction at ABC.”

This question might sound innocuous enough, but unless your employees are used to offering highly-specific and actionable suggestions, there’s going to be quite a bit of fluff in their responses.

Of course, that’s one reason why companies opt for that innocuous and positive framing in the first place. This way they’re far less likely to be confronted with the terrible and unjustifiable frustrations and demotivators they regularly foist upon their employees.

But that just means it’s a wasted opportunity.

Open-ended questions need to improve

Imagine you asked a more probing open-ended question like: “What’s one frustration you have at work that you believe your manager has the authority to fix immediately?”

This is a question that Leadership IQ regularly uses in surveys and research, including in the study Frustrations At Work.

It sometimes feels a little painful to read about these real-life frustrations, but the answers tend to be incredibly specific and actionable.

Here are some actual answers from real-life employees:

  • 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 time (e.g., I have to write three reports every week that literally nobody ever reads).
  • Our recruiting process is terrible (we take five-plus days to respond to candidates’ applications), so even though we are dangerously understaffed, we can’t manage to hire anybody.
  • We got brought back to the office supposedly for collaboration, but they closed all our conference rooms and we have to maintain social distancing so we don’t have face-to-face meetings anyways and now I’m back to having two hours wasted commuting every day.
  • 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.

If you’re a manager or member of the executive team, it’s likely to take a few minutes (or an hour), before you can process those responses without anger or defensiveness.

We find it often takes a solid hour of training before managers and executives can respond appropriately to those comments.

But painful though they may be to read, they contain a wealth of insight as to how to actually dramatically improve employees’ engagement.

In the typical open-ended survey responses to questions like: “Please share any suggestions that you feel would improve employee satisfaction at ABC,” you’ll see comments like:

  • Pay all of us back office staff what we are actually worth.
  • The CEO needs to get out and meet the staff. He doesn’t know our names and hardly anyone knows who he is.
  • I want more communication at every stage of decision-making. There has to be buy-in and feedback from the frontline staff who will be carrying out these projects and initiatives.
  • Better communication and coordination between departments and between the executives and everyone else.  
  • I wish people were nicer to each other. We do a great job of being friendly and professional with our customers. It would be wonderful if employees treated each other the same way. This includes the way managers treat their employees.

Those are certainly valid complaints, but you’ll notice how the responses are far more vague and generic than asking about “one frustration you have at work that you believe your manager has the authority to fix immediately.”

Train your managers

The lesson from all of this – I believe – is that you need to write more specific questions, and then be prepared to actually train your managers and executives about how to respond to really specific answers.

If you simply give managers pages of open-ended responses, there’s a very good chance their natural reaction will be to determine the author of each comment, and that will destroy your culture.

But if you’re willing to teach leaders how to take feedback appropriately and without defensiveness, there’s a mountain of data waiting to be revealed and used to dramatically improve employee engagement.


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