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7 Tips for Creating a Great Staff Survey

Do you want to find out what your staff really think?

If so, you have probably considered running a staff survey. But as with most things in life, there’s a good way and a not so good way to do it.


By following these seven tips you will increase your chances of getting a meaningful response which can act as a springboard for positive action.


I’ve been designing surveys, assessments, and diagnostic tools for a long time. Each one has been different, but experience has taught me what works and what doesn’t, so I want to share what I’ve learned about this dark art with you.


Before I do that, it’s worth clarifying the type of surveys I’m talking about and why I think they are so valuable if done right.


I work in the corporate sector rather in the arena of political polling, although my tips below apply to most surveys. The process of running a survey among staff enables you to involve more people in a decision-making process that affects them and can create more staff buy-in for the decisions and changes that are subsequently made. It gives you access to a wider perspective and helps you assess whether what you have been doing is working. Whilst the feedback may legitimise some of the actions you have taken, it can also highlight where a change of direction is needed.


Asking team members, direct reports, peers, and stakeholders to share their opinion, experience or perception via a questionnaire is a quick and effective way to gather comprehensive data from a lot of your workforce. It's much quicker than speaking to everyone individually. It enables you to automatically sort and analyse the responses according to factors such as length of service, departments, or any other dimension you want to pull out. And because people can complete it privately and anonymously (mostly), there is a good chance that you will get a truthful response. If, instead, you sit down and ask an employee what they think of their manager in a face-to-face enquiry, you can’t always be guaranteed to elicit a genuine answer.


Surveys done well are a rich source of information, inspiration, and ideas. However, done badly, they are a blunt instrument that fail to capture nuance or reality. So, if you are considering creating a survey for your team, department or wider organisation, these seven tips will help you get the best outcome.


1. NEVER CARRY OUT A SURVEY IF YOU ARE NOT PREPARED TO ACT ON THE FINDINGS

The best staff surveys seek to capture honest experience and feelings. That means that some of the responses might be challenging. If you think there’s a chance you will want to bury any negative findings, its best to avoid asking questions that are likely to elicit a negative result. In which case, you should ask yourself why you are running the survey in the first place! It is much worse to carry out a survey and then ignore/bury the findings than to have never run a survey at all. Not only will people be much more reluctant to participate next time, but you will also have damaged your credibility and broken trust with your colleagues.


2. KNOW WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW & HOW IT WILL HELP THE RESPONDENTS

Don’t ask random questions. Be clear about the information you want to gather, how you intend to process it, and how you will act on it. The best surveys are focused on clear themes, and respondents are clear about what is being asked of them. Respondents should also have faith that their responses will be taken seriously. Where possible, use headings to make clear to respondents what topics you want to explore (e.g., Communication, Wellbeing, Trust, etc), and then only ask questions about that topic within that survey section. This also makes it easier to process the data later.


3. ONLY ASK FOR ONE RESPONSE PER ITEM

Multiple questions within a single item breed confusion and generate unreliable responses. So, make sure that respondents have only one thing to respond to within each survey item. For instance, an item such as “we make decisions quickly and they are usually shown to be the right ones" is highly problematic. What if respondents think that decision making is quick but generally catastrophic? How should they answer in this case?


If you have two things to ask, split them across two items. In this example, the first will be about the speed of decision making, and the second will be about the efficacy of decisions taken.


The example given above is problematic in another way. By adding the word “usually", you are asking the respondent to base their judgement on two criteria: that is, how good the decisions are, and how often they are good. So, a better phrasing would be as follows: “the decisions we make turn out to be the right ones", with a response scale of ‘Never – Sometimes – Mostly - Always'.


4. ANONYMITY IS BEST, UNLESS IT’S NOT!

Ultimately, we want every respondent to willingly complete a survey and feel totally safe in the knowledge that their responses will be handled professionally and sensitively. Sadly, this isn’t how many respondents feel, especially if they are being invited to evaluate and comment on things like organisation culture, stress, line manager capability, or change. That’s why I nearly always recommend that staff surveys are carried out anonymously. Mostly, I don’t collect data that allows me to personally identify a respondent, although if there are enough people in a data group, I do sometimes ask people to identify which department they work in. This helps in the comparative analysis across departments.


However, some people have no qualms about being identified which is why I try to include free text questions in any survey, where appropriate. These are the responses that typically lead to people ‘giving themselves away’, so they should come with advice that their responses could identify them. This allows for people who want to make themselves known through their comments to do so, whilst still enabling us to capture responses from people who want to guard their identity.


5. VARY YOUR ANSWER OPTIONS

If every question has the same response option, some respondents will be tempted to pick the same response for every item, effectively invalidating their submission. Mix the options up a bit between numerical scales and text-based options. A good mix is where a survey might require respondents to choose from various answer options such as ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; ‘Totally agree’ through to ‘Totally disagree’; or a numerical rating scale to determine how well they think something is being done. Also, giving people opportunities to expand on their answers using free text can help to qualify why people feel the way they do. Free text items are also a great way to elicit contributions from staff, who can often feel like an untapped resource of wisdom and creativity.


6. TRY TO AVOID GIVING A MIDDLE OPTION

Three or five-point scales are vulnerable to fence sitters who prefer to plump for the mid-point rather than offer a considered, more accurate response. So, use 1 to 6 scales instead or 1 to 9. And if you choose a 1-9 option reflecting how closely a respondent agrees with a given statement, you might want to remove the option to select 5 or 7. Since surveys are essentially information gathering exercises, the idea is to stimulate some thought, rather than trigger an automatic response.


7. OPTIONAL OR MANDATORY?

There's no right answer here. Your decision needs to consider the subject matter, the current organisational culture, the health and wellbeing of the target group, the current demands on the people you want to respond, the size of population you need to reach, etc.


Some surveys such as our Team Effectiveness survey which is designed to identify how best to elevate a specific team’s performance, are pretty meaningless unless everyone in the team participates. If people don’t want to, there seems little point in carrying out the survey. So, it’s not so much that we make completion mandatory, but that we choose not to run the survey unless there is full consensus about doing so.


Other surveys can produce useless data if the representative same is too small. For instance, getting ten responses from a workforce of 100 people probably invalidates the data, or makes it unreliable for driving change (especially if those ten respondents were handpicked based on their likelihood of sharing the same view). However, the low response rate is a worrying indicator and should prompt you to ask why so many people when invited to participate chose not to take up your exciting offer!

There will be occasions when you need everyone in a group to participate in a survey process, in which case, the points referred to above need to be considered fully. Most people don’t take kindly to being forced to do stuff, especially stuff that has no obvious benefit to them, so if it is to be mandatory, take extra special care:


  • don’t do anything to make people feel nervous or fearful.

  • make sure that the process can be administered with minimal disruption (remember: people are already busy!).

  • be totally transparent about why you require them to participate and how their responses will shape the agenda.

  • make sure that survey items and rating mechanisms are designed in such a way so as to minimise the risk of ‘spoiled papers’.

  • keep talking to people and thank them for playing their part, even though they weren’t given a choice!


Staff surveys are fabulous tools but should be used sparingly and part of a wider data gathering exercise. They should never be a substitute for talking to your staff, nor should they be rolled out every week. But most of all, they need to be a supported by a genuine desire for enquiry and a commitment to act on the findings. It you can’t commit to that; your problems are probably bigger than a survey might fix.

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