More than just a number: thinking differently about employee survey results
Illustration by Mark Winter
Numbers have had a powerful hold over our thinking for millennia and across cultures – before we were able to write we were using numerical symbols to help make sense of the world around us. It’s no surprise then that even today, we use numbers to make judgements and decisions. On any given day, you’ll use numbers at least once when weighing up a decision (‘Is that cup of coffee really worth two quid?’, ‘there’s a 56% chance of failure, should I go for it?’).
Making a decision about whether or not to drop two quid on a cup of coffee is pretty trivial, but when it comes to bigger decisions, we have to be careful about how we interpret numbers and the weight we give to them. This is especially true when talking about employee survey results.
Engagement reports are almost entirely based on numbers – how many employees responded, the percentage who are proud, the proportion who don’t feel recognised – and often use colour coding to deliver a clear and concise message about organisational health (red = bad, amber = middling, green = good). These methods certainly have their uses, but it’s also possible to approach survey results with a bit more consideration and nuance.
Here are a few suggestions for how to think about your results differently.
Ask better questions
Because of the power that numbers have over us, we’re often very afraid of a bad result. And this fear can sometimes influence the choices we make about the questions we ask. After all, if you don’t ask tough questions, you won’t get tough answers.
So, while engagement surveys require benchmarking and trend analysis, consistently high scores in the region of 90% are probably not telling you much.
90% is a great score on any measure. But even high scores need to be considered carefully. If a question is consistently scoring in the 90s are you measuring the right thing? Could you be filling up question space with redundant information? Are your high scores being used as a political tool to save the organisation from more awkward discussions? Avoiding critical information for political expediency can be very harmful in the long term.
Flip your result
70% is a first at university, well done (from experience, most profs are reluctant to give more)! But for an organisation you could still be doing better. Looking at this score from a different angle reveals that 30% of your organisation is not happy or impressed with the new change initiative. Almost 1/3 of the organisation could be a huge number of disaffected or even actively disengaged employees. Leaders can probably get a sense of the reality but in a busy or fast-paced environment it’s easy to hang on to a positively framed message to the detriment of real problem solving.
Embrace bad scores
30% is terrible. Or is it? 30% shows you’re brave and asking the right questions. 30% is the beginning of a new journey to a great organisational culture and a more engaged workforce. Asking questions that count and that enable employees to voice concerns gives management the opportunity to deal with the root causes and stop broader issues from developing.
A good employee survey isn’t always about collecting high scores. It’s about raising issues, and then tracking development on those issues as you experiment with possible solutions.