How to Know What Your Team Is Really Thinking & Feeling

Employee Engagement Survey.  Culture Survey.  Pulse Survey.  No matter what you call it, we are always trying to get a sense of how our team is thinking and feeling.  Are they at risk of leaving?  Are our programs and efforts helping or distracting the organization?   Do they feel connected to the business?  Especially as companies and teams go through a lot of change, it’s really important to keep your finger on the pulse of the organization.  Instead of launching our normal culture survey, last month we did a pulse survey focused on people’s level of stress, what questions they had about the business, and what we, as an organization, could be doing to help them. That was the feedback I needed at this moment in time so that was the survey we launched.

The trick to a good survey is to make sure you are asking questions that actually get you the feedback you are trying to get.  And then once you get the data, figuring out the story it is telling you and how you can drive change for the future.  Below are three tips (and 3 sub-tips!) to make sure you are launching the right survey for your company at the right time.

What feedback are you actually trying to gather?   Why are you launching the survey at this specific moment (or why do you do a recurring survey)?  Is it to do a check on engagement?  Is it to test the happiness or pride factor?  Is it to get feedback on how people feel about their managers?  Maybe it’s after a significant moment in the business and you want to know how the team thinks the company did during that time (ex. acquisition, a shift in strategy).  It’s important to know the purpose of the survey to decide what questions you want to ask of the team.

Logistics of the survey.  

  • How often should you send the survey?   How many questions do you want to include?   If it is a broader survey about the health of the team, you want to send it frequently enough to be able to flag changes quickly while not so frequently that you can’t implement any actions to impact change.  For broader culture surveys, I have found a longer survey (~25 questions) once a year is helpful with quarterly pulse checks.  If I am trying to get feedback on something that is happening more immediately (how people are doing during this pandemic) I send a short survey more frequently.   But to get feedback on managers, it’s a little longer (10-15 questions) and less frequent.  You want to be able to get the feedback without incurring survey fatigue which will impact your results!
  • How to use ratings and comments.  You want to use ratings when you need a benchmark to compare past and future results (or industry data).  As much as possible be consistent in your ratings so people aren’t confused by what you are asking (agree/disagree, satisfied/not satisfied, and always have “1” be the least desirable score).  I have tried to use more 1-4 scales (rather than 1-5) to avoid a “neutral” option unless that is a legitimate piece of feedback.  Comment boxes are helpful to share feedback on why they assigned the rating they did or to provide open suggestions on a specific topic (ex. “What else can the company be doing to…”)
  • Anonymity and cutting the data by cohort.  Asking someone to include their name, or any identifying information (location, department, tenure) can hold someone back from sharing their true feedback.  It’s great if you can use a platform that creates a link for each individual (and those cohort identifiers are built into the link you send out).  But if that isn’t possible, I always make the “Name” field optional.  And I make the other cohorts broad enough that they feel protected.  For example if your sales team is three people and they are all in different cities, I can quickly identify Sales/Tampa as Sally.  But if it’s Sales & Marketing/Southeast, that might create a larger cohort.  There is a lot of conversation if people’s lack of wanting to be identified says something about trust within the organization.  And while I agree with that to a point, there are also people that might be new to the company or earlier in their career who are still building confidence to share feedback or are more introverted and don’t want a possible light to be shined on their feedback (even good feedback).  It’s why I like the “optional” name field, it’s the best of both worlds.

Are you able/willing to take action on the questions you are asking?   One of the biggest mistakes I have seen companies make is that they ask a question they know they aren’t willing or unable to affect change.   Compensation and benefits is a great example. For example, it would not be a priority for me to ask my current team about their benefit plans because we are with a PEO so we have very little control over the plans (but I can ask about other perks that we run directly!).   If as an organization you are either confident of your compensation philosophy, or you know you don’t have the budget to make any changes, I would not ask a question about comp.  Because if that number is low, when you report back the results to the team, what are you going to say?  “Sorry you feel bad about your comp, but oh well!”  It goes back to the purpose of the survey.  Focus your questions on the areas of the business and culture you are committed to changing or further developing.  

Even if you do all of the above to the best of your ability, you have to make sure you take action on the feedback.  Don’t promise the sun and moon.  Pick one or two things that are strong themes or the most meaningful areas to the business and focus on those.  Create a strong action plan with milestones and keep to it.  Create accountability by sharing it with the team on a regular basis.  The quickest way to lose credibility through your surveys is to do them, and then never share the results or not follow through on the action plan.  You will see your response rate and feedback plumet the next time.  Remember, you launched the survey because you wanted to know what your team was really feeling at a given time, so keep that commitment all the way through to the next survey!

Bonus!  I shared a case study of how I used feedback from a culture survey to help strengthen the relationship between the team and the broader organization at EX Impact 2019