One-way feedback: In-house employee surveys and the illusion of open decision making

A recent conversation at a conference confirmed my suspicions: More organizations are using online, “anonymous” surveys to get feedback from their employees. This practice appears to be especially common during strategic planning or organizational assessment stages.

Typically, an employee will get an e-mail in her inbox, inviting her to complete an online survey, often using programs such as SurveyMonkey. Topics vary widely, but usually they cover some aspect(s) of employment relations or management decision making.

Multiple choice, yes-no, agree-disagree questions will predominate, sometimes exclusively, thus sharply limiting the range of feedback.

The catch (or, catches)

So the employee may be thinking, great, they want my opinion! I’m fortunate to be working at a place that welcomes what I have to say!

But hold on. Frequently these surveys are done with an underlying agenda, usually one that seeks validation for an already favored course of action. (A telltale sign is when obvious choices or answers are not provided as response options, or when the survey is framed to exclude entire points of view.)

Call me a cynic, but here’s the usual situation:

1. The raw survey data are not shared with those who participated. Instead, a sanitized summary may be prepared and released.

2. If the survey results favor the desired outcome, they likely will be trumpeted to the high heavens.

3. If the results are ambiguous, you may not hear anything more, or those in charge will say the feedback was inconclusive and requires more thought.

4. If the results run squarely counter to the desired outcome, it’s possible that you’ll never hear another word about the survey, or reasons will be generated to disregard it (e.g., “it’s just a snapshot,” “too few respondents,” “we really shouldn’t be swayed against our better judgment”).

If organizations want genuine exchanges about planning, actions, and evaluations, they should consider making these survey results completely available, edited only for information that is defamatory or confidential — or at least guarantee that the individual tallies will be released regardless of how they come out.

11 responses

  1. Professor Yamada:
    Your post calls to mind the notion of “Process Consultation” as espoused by Ed Schein and other Organization Development scholars and practitioners. Good OD consultants reject playing “tricks” on people such as withholding controversial survey results after the data was openly collected. Of course, it takes a resilient management to willingly share unpleasant truths with staff, doesn’t it?

  2. None of this is a surprise to any of us who have been on the answering end of such surveys. Management simply puts on a show to make themselves look good to the Board.

  3. So many workers I know will still NOT answer the surveys truthfully. Why? Because they sense corporate has a way of tying their responses to each employee. They call it “anonymous” but then why does each employee have their own secret code sent to their personal email address? You must answer via that code. Then the responses they allow you to select do not necessarily fit with the reality of the workplace. Oh no, employees are fuly aware it is all smoke and mirrors. Do corporate leaders really think the majority of the workforce are that naive?

  4. David, you hit this article out of the park! You are e-x-a-c-t-l-y right about the political maneuvering that occurs to spin the results. If the results cannot make the company look good, the results will not be shared. But that’s what makes a great workplace, well, great. Leaders are willing to be open and honest, even when the news is not favorable.

    Take a victory lap on this one. I hope this article get spread to a few hundred thousand people. HR is wasting everyone’s time if surveys are going to be business as usual.

    Kevin Kennemer
    The Chief People Officer
    The People Group

  5. If anyone paints of better picture of negative workplace dynamics than Professor Yamada, I’ve yet to see it. Thank you for your latest set of insights. They always resonate, as is plain from everyone’s comments.

  6. David, This is the best way to validate what we know about a workplace that is bullied, use worker satisfaction suveys. Sueveys done by management generally get the results you’ve identified – if the result isn’t what they want, the results are never seen by the employees or anyone outside management. I have done such surveys as a union rep and found that employees are dying to tell the truth in a safe way. The results are always compiled and fed back to the employees who find that although they don’t talk to one another about the bully problem – they all think the same. The results can then be used to communicate the extent of the problem to folks up the organizational tree. The surveys can be repeated to identify the impact of any intervention on the employee group. They can be used to identify problem groups within a large organization. They are one of the keys to creating a concerted action by a group of fragmented beaten up employees. I recommend them highly – but not surveys done by management!

    • Carol, we’re definitely in agreement re the value of a union survey used to assess member experiences and concerns. The major exception I’d have to that is when unions conduct surveys of member satisfaction with the union and then cover up results they don’t like. But as to members’ experiences with their employers, I absolutely endorse the use of such surveys!

      Thanks much for raising this point.

  7. A survey is an important tool for any kind of business. It helps pin point aspects that requires some fine tuning. The results can be used to set up a number of specific measures in order to continuously enhance the company’s overall performance.

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