How employee surveys lie to you

Okay. I confess! I have done and still do, a zillion employee surveys measuring a billion things from your morale to your mojo. And today it’s confession time. Almost all employee surveys are a big lie dinosaurand a huge waste of time and resources. Even worse, they can hurt more than help you. Zounds! What is this sacrilege? Here’s the thing:

1. An annual, even twice a year, employee survey is a waste of time. Especially if all or most of the questions have more scales than a rotting fish. It’s natural to answer such a thing based on how you feel at the moment, even if you’re asked “looking back over the past year…” Us humans tend to be very situational. Our rearview mirror of life is based chiefly on what’s on the front seat, right now, right here. If management thinks it can “know” how employees feel with an annual like-the-Likert scale then you and I should sell them that rusty bridge down the street.

2. An employee survey tells you what the “average” is thinking, but not necessarily what you are thinking at that moment. Us bean counters need to ensure that we have a “statistically significant” sample size which means if you are in one of 40 workplaces that together add up to 1,000 employees, us data-crunchers need to have at least 40% or 400 responses to be even close to “accurate.” Too bad your work unit has just 15 warm bodies. That means you’re “statistically insignificant” for that useless result of how you feel right now. There are many (almost all) examples of employee surveys that overlay, “generalize” is the term, the overall results onto the entire workplace. Yet I know that this magical average doesn’t accurately show how you, in your “statistically insignificant” workplace, feel. So, management makes changes based on the average result of a useless annual survey that directly impacts your happy workplace when there’s no problem. Or they do nothing for you in the corner when the “average” result says all is okay.

3. Employee surveys are either ignored or misinterpreted. If its bad news, management will deny the results as junk science from a bunch of nattering nabobs of negativity (to quote a U.S. politician), torture the data until it falsely confesses (“just add in the average ratings to the good/very good and make it look better”), or delay any action until the next comet strikes earth. If it’s good news, they will take the selected “high morale,” “high engagement,” (insert latest buzz word here) data and strut about with the satisfaction that their personal management and especially leadership is the single cause of the bright light, never mind that maybe it’s the employees in the trenches who make things work.

So, am I saying that we scrap employees survey? Indeed I am. If they are used as a substitute or an excuse for what good and great leaders and managers do. And that is, actually listen to employees on a regular basis; quickly and honestly share information that is important to them; think about them as living, human beings with emotions and complexities that often swing and sway based on all manner of things; set aside your own ego and ambition as a manager; offer guidance and respectful performance feedback as part of your everyday way of doing things–not because it’s required on an annual form; resolve conflict in a fair and consistent manner, and hold employees–and especially yourself–as accountable for promises made.

Do that, and as a manager you won’t need “another damn survey.” And as an employee, you won’t have to wait a year to find the number on the performance scale that you can mark as &%%##!

2 thoughts on “How employee surveys lie to you

  1. Thank you Dr.Sopow. Any effective practicing manager/leader has his/her finger on the pulse of their employees on a continuing basis. These surveys are mostly placebo management interventions that accomplish exactly what you stated.


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