Are culture surveys a waste of time?

We know it’s odd for us to say so, but unfortunately they mostly are a waste of time.

Here’s three reasons why: 

1. A survey is a moment in time. A survey is generally done once a year. This could have been after a period of poor performance, or at a time when everyone found out they are getting bonuses or when everyone’s favourite team member was unfairly dismissed. Is stand alone data generated from a moment in time an accurate representation of an organisations culture? 

2. The numbers don’t explain the narrative. Most survey providers spit out a bunch of bar graphs and pie charts, full of percentages and colours. The hard truth is, as a business we are often paid to help organisations post the running of a survey to help them to interpret the data and find out what people meant when they answered certain questions. Data may point to broad indicators but are they enough to explain the narrative of whats really going on? 

3. Nothing changes. You really have one chance. Maybe two. When you ask your employees what they think, they expect to find out what the survey revealed. They also want to know what the next steps are and what changes to expect. Surveys are a catalyst for action and change. That’s what builds trust and in the process sets employees up for engagement in further initiatives and future surveys. How will people feel if they are continually asked to contribute to what feels like a tick box activity? 

So should we stop running culture surveys?

Of course not. Surveys are a powerful way to create space for employees to express how they feel. That’s the real reason they exist. But beyond that, they remain significant catalysts for action, as well as mechanisms to benchmark and review the state of your culture and the progress you are making as you execute your culture strategy. 

Surveys simply need to be done right. 

We’ve consolidated our years of experience in running surveys into four key elements required to ensure that they truly make a difference and are worth the investment

  1. Leverage demographics. We spend a great deal of time upfront addressing the topic of demographics. It’s important to be able to mine your data, and part of that is about being able to split it apart and separate it into categories. Demographics point you toward areas of concern. Data gives you a clear indication, for example, which departments are struggling and need support. But in order to drill down, we need to ask for demographics upfront. The reason why we generally exclude demographics is because we want employees to feel like the survey is anonymous. A survey which asks for demographics is still anonymous. We simply need to explain properly how we will use the data and how we will represent it. A practical example which highlights the employees concern is that someone answering the survey may be the only white female in a department. They then feel the data will point back to them for obvious reasons. Once they understand that no demographic data will be represented per department, but instead only in the wrap up data (so the entire organisation) then they are able to trust the process. Secondly, no data which represents less than 5 people should be represented. For example, if there are only 4 Indian males, or 4 people who have worked for the business for less than 2 years etc, then their data cannot be represented. This just needs to be explained properly, which can be done by showing those about to answer the survey how the data is used and represented once the survey is done.
  2. Ask more questions. Our survey solutions always include focus groups. These can be done prior to the survey which means you are using the data to confirm the insights gleaned through the focus groups. Or they can be run after the survey. This means you can use the numbers and ask people for more clarity on particular areas of concern. We like to do both and include a series of pre-focus groups, one on ones and post focus groups with departments who scores were concerning. That way, we are able to get a clear indication of the narrative behind the numbers.
  3. Communicate. People are sceptical of surveys. So talk to them. Cast vision for the survey. Tell them why you want to do it and what you want to achieve out of it. Show them examples of how the data will be represented. We spend up to two weeks designing communications prior to opening the survey. We include an email address and phone number during the survey should anyone have any concerns or questions before they answer the survey. Talk to your teams pre, during and most importantly post the survey. When a survey is completed, share an overview of the results with your people and ensure they are clear on next steps. The next steps are broken into three categories:
    1. Category 1. We have heard you and this is what we would like to celebrate. Share the positive data and celebrate it.
    2. Category 2. We have heard you and these are the areas of concern we will be focusing on. Outline a strategy to deal with the areas that need to be addressed.
    3. Category 3. We have heard you and are going to challenge you to shift your perspective in this area. In other words, this is unlikely to change so if it is a big deal to you then this may not be the organisation for you.
  4. Hold leaders accountable. Our firm belief, linked to our BILT model, is that leaders play a critical role in shaping good culture. If a department score is low, then the leader of that department needs to be encouraged and equipped to strengthen the culture of his or her department. A culture strategy following a culture survey should include elements that are specific to departments and not simply a blanket strategy for the whole organisation. Then hold them accountable through mini measurements further down the line. Additional questions can be asked to ensure the leader has a clear handle on how to shape and sustain good culture in their area. Essentially, each department is a sub culture of the broader organisations culture. If we target the shaping of good culture per department, we can strengthen the culture through each leader rather than placing the responsibility purely on the HR department.

Culture Surveys need to be done right. The exercise does not just include designing some questions and sending them out. There is a lot to consider which will ensure that you get useable data, which you can leverage, to design strategies that make a difference.

Appletree has over 15 years’ experience partnering organisations to shape and sustain good culture. Culture Surveys are a key element in how we go about forming a culture strategy for our clients. Reach out to us to ensure the successful delivery of a culture survey within your organisation.

Pic: Emily Morter (Unsplash)

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