What’s the point of asking if nothing ever changes?

By Sarah Johnson, PhD - January 21, 2016

Recently, after reviewing results from the most recent organization survey, a CEO said to me “I don’t think we need to run our survey every year, since the scores don’t change that much.” 


There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.  And, as often happens, I didn’t think of some really good responses until I was on the plane flying home from the meeting.  So, Mr. CEO, here’s what I should have said in our meeting. 

  • The act of measuring does nothing to drive change.  I can step on my bathroom scale everyday.  If my weight doesn’t change, does that mean I don’t need to weigh myself daily?  The answer depends on whether I want the number on the scale to change.  If I want to maintain equilibrium, then I can probably weigh in less frequently.  But if I want the number to change then I have to do more than weigh myself.  I have to change my behavior.  So if the survey scores don’t change that much, the company likely isn’t taking action.
  • Sometimes numbers don’t change if they have reached their natural ceiling.  Survey scores that are high and stable have probably given us as much insight as they can, and it’s time to reconsider survey content.  Survey content needs to be refreshed on a regular basis, so swap out the high scoring questions for ones that provide fresh insight on topics that are of strategic value to the organization.  I know it’s hard to give up questions that produce results which give us a warm, fuzzy feeling, but change doesn’t happy when we feel warm and fuzzy.
  • It’s all about context.  Sometimes no change is a welcome relief.  I have worked with companies that have undergone wrenching change, including restructurings, downsizings, divestitures, tanking stock prices and plunging revenues.  In this context, the ability to maintain consistent scores in key survey metrics indicates the company has banked enough engagement capital over the years to survive the debacle and stave off a mass departure of key staff, at least for the short term.  Conversely, stable survey scores after a banner year for the company could suggest that employees aren’t sharing in the company’s success, or feel that it came at the expense of employee engagement or investment in staff.  This is an issue that requires immediate action.
  • So if company sales were stable year over year, would you make a decision to review key sales metrics less frequently?  Not bloody likely.  Good leaders don’t aim for stability when it comes to important organization metrics.  Increases are good, flat is a concern.  Sales, revenue, and customer satisfaction metrics that don’t change much have been the subject of task forces, market research, market analysis, efficiency studies, reassessment of sales channels and on an on and on.  The point is, why the complacency around stable organizational survey results when stable sales and revenue results would generate a flurry of study and investment and hand wringing?  Do you care less about what employees think?

OK, so I probably would have stopped talking before I made that last statement, but you can see where I was headed.  The CEO’s comment is a seemingly simple one and on the surface it seems logical.  The reality is far more complex.  The survey isn’t intended to provide just a steady stream of metrics.  It’s intended to guide leader decisions, inspire change, inform strategy, spur discussion, and maybe even generate a little bit of hand wringing when the scores don’t change much. 

A girl can hope. 

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