Here's a little secret your managers may not tell you: They hate the employee survey process. It’s not that they’re bad people who want to deprive employees of a voice, but from the perspective of a manager in the middle of your organization, the employee survey is not popular. Let's look at it from a manager’s point of view to consider some of the reasons why, and what your organization can do to remedy the situation.
Whose idea was this, anyway? The decision to conduct an all-employee survey is made at the top of the house, generally based on active championing from the corporate HR organization. Mid-level managers are not involved. They are told about the survey and how important their responsibilities will be to make the process a success, but not asked if and when a survey is a good idea. Consulting managers on how to make the process work effectively is unheard of—consequently, the survey is perceived as another example of the dreaded: "I'm from HR and I'm here to help you..."
Oh great, a bigger "to-do" list. Unless the organization conducting the survey is thoughtful about the survey analysis and follow-up phases of the process, employee surveys can produce long lists of improvement-needed areas. Guess who gets to problem-solve most of the issues and ensure implementation takes place? Managers won’t argue that addressing issues identified by the survey—low levels of engagement, problems with cross-functional teamwork, improving supervisory practices, not enough emphasis on growth and advancement, etc.—is a not good thing. And since conducting an employee survey creates an implied commitment to follow-up, neglecting to do a good job of post-survey analysis and action planning is a recipe for creating cynicism among employees who took the time and effort to provide their opinions and feedback. But managers are rightfully concerned that all this effort at organizational improvement gets loaded on their backs.
So, what actions can organizations take to avoid passive acceptance or grudging cooperation from the management ranks with the survey process?
First, in the planning and positioning step of the project, treat managers as key stakeholders, because they are. This means identifying what's in it for them, what's at risk, and then analyzing how to accentuate the benefits and minimize the potential downside. For example, it’s a good idea to hold focus groups sessions with managers in advance of a survey to discuss the what, why, and how of the survey project. Listen to gripes about flaws in the approach your organization used in previous surveys and figure out how to overcome them in the upcoming survey. Ask for input on the process—how to make it better—and engage in dialogue. This is an opportunity to inform, sell, and ask for support of the process. You may not be able to quell every concern or solve every problem raised, but managers will feel more involved and more respected if they are informed and consulted. At a minimum, communicate with managers in advance of the survey to let them know the survey is coming, provide a business rationale for the project, and ask for their support.
Second, be more thoughtful when it comes to the communication, issue identification, analysis and follow-up steps of the survey process. Managers are busy people. While they may readily acknowledge the value of the survey process, they don't look forward to being overburdened with difficult-to-read or lengthy survey reports they in turn are expected to distill and communicate to the workforce. They also don't want to end up with a laundry list of potential improvement areas that have not been screened or prioritized.
This means survey reports need to be designed to meet the needs of the intended audience—the HR department may want all the details behind survey reports across all demographics, but managers will feel better served with a high-level briefing supported by a department-specific scorecard that provides a snapshot view of their results in areas the organization wants them to focus on.
When managers are expected to do a broad analysis and action-planning for their own departments, it’s a good practice to provide guidance on the kinds of issues you expect them to address, including the improvement areas you do not want them to tackle. For example, if your survey includes questions about employee benefits, reward system competitiveness, customer perceptions of the company's brand, etc., these are areas that can best be addressed at the level of your organization where a solution can be developed and applied across the enterprise, not by creative, one-off innovations developed at the departmental level. For more ideas on approaches to effective post-survey action planning and follow-up, see our post Four Ways to Improve Survey Follow-Up.
These ideas may not make managers love the process; after all, some of the survey results may tell them their performance is not what it could be. But treating managers as stakeholders and optimizing the process to make it easier for them to do an effective job of survey follow-up will make a big difference.