How’s it going? How’s it going? How’s it going? How’s it going?

By Sarah Johnson, PhD - May 01, 2015

It’s easy to fall into the comfortable trap of continuing to do things the way they have always been done. For years we were encouraged to find definable, repeatable processes and look for ways to make them more efficient and error free. 

It’s fair to say that many of us in the organization survey and employee engagement space fell into this trap.  Surveys became annual events.  Hierarchies were created, questionnaires were written, trends were plotted and reports were distributed.  And with any luck changes were implemented as a result of the survey findings.  Most companies used this basic process, sometimes with a few tweaks such as surveying biannually, or running a pulse survey here or there.  The topics changed, of course, but the process or methodology of the survey was more or less unchanged.

But hey, new ideas are a good thing.  Improvements to an existing process or product should be welcome and in fact over the years many new ideas have been incorporated into the survey process.  Technology was readily adopted and eventually preloading demographics to create a confidential rather than anonymous survey was generally embraced.  It’s all good, right?

Lately another new idea has emerged in the organization survey landscape:  Continuous polling of employee sentiment via a daily or weekly surveys or even pressing a green (it was a great day!) or red (today sucked!) button as employees leave work.  Some companies feel that this methodology will give them an ongoing view of employee perspectives. 

I suppose it isn’t surprising that this type of idea would be applied to employee opinions.  Technology has allowed companies to collect continuous input from customers and users.  Tens of millions of webpage clicks are tracked daily and these days you can’t buy a car, a taco, groceries or clothes without being asked to take a brief customer satisfaction survey.  It seems companies want to know what you think about just about everything.  The ability to collect data is almost limitless and in a world of change and wide availability of technology more data feels better than less data.

Don’t get me wrong.  Asking employees how things are going is a good thing, and it is the essence of the organizational survey. But the thought of being asked the same question on a daily basis lead me to the title of this blog. The whole thing just might get on my nerves.  

For years clients have asked for the best way to drive survey participation higher.  I always said the best way is to take action on the survey results.  Do something, anything, and make sure that employees know you did that thing because of what they told you on the survey.  The best way to kill participation in the survey?  Do absolutely nothing, but keep asking employees to participate in the survey.  Employees will start to ask wonder if the time and thought they invest in the process goes unheeded or even worse, ignored?  If I talk to you but you don’t answer back, why should I bother?

For the sake of argument, consider coming home from work after a long day and asking your wife/husband/partner/significant other/child “How was your day?”  They proceed to tell you in detail all that has happened and whether it was a good day or a bad day.  After they have finished answering your question you turn and walk away silently.  How is that going to go over at your house?  Now imagine that this scenario is repeated every day for a week.  By Friday not only won’t you get a response, you may fear asking the question.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s great to ask.  But if asking is all that is being done, be prepared for a negative reaction.  Think of the many times a week you are asked to respond to a customer satisfaction survey.  How many do you actually complete? 

To be fair many of the companies interested in daily or weekly surveys say they plan to analyze the data and take action.  That’s great.  But when a company asks one or a small handful of questions, how will they know what action to take?  If mood or sentiment drops, what’s the reason?  What’s the fix?  They will certainly be able to see the trend but will have precious little data to use to diagnose the issue.

As I reread much of what I have written I am painfully aware that it can be interpreted as an unwillingness to change, or being so stuck in the methodologies I have used for years that I am immune to new ideas.  I get that.  I am not in any way saying that frequent pulse surveys are a bad idea, or that an annual census is the only way to go.  Pulse surveys can be a great way to collect fresh data on timely issues and a very effective component of a larger HR analytics strategy.  Imagine amassing a database that has census survey data, demographics, business performance metrics, pulse survey data and even daily sentiment.  This database can be mined to link the various components, e.g. is a current dip in sentiment related to a downturn in business performance or an uptick in turnover or a drop in customer satisfaction? Now THAT would be powerful.  But the point is providing value requires more that just asking “how’s it going?”   

The organization survey methodology has lasted as long as it has because it is based on the premise that the results are a catalyst for discussions between managers and employees, and discussion is a catalyst for change.  Surveys were intended as an organization development intervention, and when used as such they can be very powerful.  It just so happens that the survey also collects a lot of great data that can be mined to answer all sorts of interesting questions.  And believe me, there is nothing wrong with that.  But if surveys tilt to solely becoming a data collection vehicle the process loses significant value. 

Great communication is dependent on asking the right questions, listening and acting.  Sometimes acting means asking additional questions.  Most of the time it means taking action to make necessary changes.  But don’t keep asking the same question and hope the answers change.

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