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5 questions to ask to create survey ‘happy endings’

Updated: Mar 15, 2021

Once upon time there was a prince. He was handsome, and he was well-loved by his followers. But then a curse turned him into a hideous beast, punishing him for his cold-hearted and selfish ways. Soon his followers came to both fear and mistrust him.

Sound familiar? It should, as it’s from ‘Beauty and the Beast’, a fairy tale we all know and love. It should also sound familiar as its exactly what’s happened when it comes to employee engagement surveys. We used to love them, but over the years many of us have fallen out of love with them, fearing and dreading them as they’ve become more and more ‘beast-like’.

This was exactly the conversation I had the other day during an engagement workshop, chatting with HR colleagues about their engagement challenges. Time and time again they raised the point about how ineffective engagement surveys had become over the years, with them using the word ‘beast’ more than once.

And I’m not surprised, for many companies continue to do employee engagement surveys for the wrong reasons and in the wrong ways.

Here are five key questions to consider before doing your next survey:

1 – Why?  The starting point should always be by asking the question ‘why’ – why are you asking for employee feedback and doing an engagement survey in the first place? We often jump in believing that the ‘why’ is to have an engagement score to dangle in the faces of our leadership teams to show the great work we’re doing or to achieve an award or industry ranking. These are good reasons, but should never be the primary ‘why’. The real ‘why’ should be to help you make strategic decisions that are right for your business and for your workforce. So start by really dissecting the ‘why’ and dig deep to understand exactly why you’re asking, which in turn will help you answer the other questions.

2 – What? The next question to ask is ‘what’ – what feedback are you trying to obtain based on the why? Structure your survey questions around these so that you target exactly what you need to understand better.

For example, if your ‘why’ is to understand why employees are saying they aren’t feeling appreciated, then ask questions to dig deeper into why they feel this way. Questions may be: Do you feel recognized for the job you’re performing? Are you receiving recognition on a timely basis? Does your manager recognize you for your contributions? What could we do to make you feel more appreciated?

3 – How? The next question to ask is ‘how’, how are you going to get feedback from your employees? For this question I have a few suggestions:

  1. Don’t rely on one source. Surveys are a great way to capture feedback, but I’d suggest that you find other ways, whether formal or informal to supplement this.  This could be by quick pulse surveys, informal feedback sessions, or even adding opportunities to share feedback when company news and information is shared. In my book "Build it", I share the story of HSBC's "shut up and listen" program, a forum they created to help employees share their thoughts and views freely, encouraging and creating an environment where employees can not only speak up but feel it's their responsibility to do so. This is a great example of creating a way for your employees to truly speak up, benefiting both employees and the company.

  2. Partner with managers. Managers are a key source of feedback as they hear things from their employees that you may not have access to. Reach out to them and create an open dialogue so they’ll share feedback with you on a timely basis. Managers are also key to encouraging their teams to participate in providing feedback, so use them and all of their powers.

  3. Communicate it effectively. If you want feedback you need to communicate to your workforce in an effective way, letting them know why you’re asking and what you’ll be doing with their input. Do this at the beginning and throughout the process so they feel partnered with and appreciated for their input.

4 – Who? The next question is to ask who – who is going to be responsible for actioning the feedback? In the past it was solely owned by HR, which I believe is a key contributor to them turning into beasts. There needs to be shared ownership between HR and business leaders of the feedback, with everyone working together to drive strategic change.

In my book "Build it", I share the story of how Dunelm, a home furnishing chain in the UK, created their "always on" survey that has become a useful management tool, with managers being able to see and act on feedback immediately, helping them make better decisions for their stores day in and day out. This is a great example of having managers take responsibility and accountability for owning and acting on employee feedback.

5 – When? The final question is determine the ‘when’, so when should the feedback be asked for? Normally done first, I suggest it be the last question, as you can’t decide this until you answer the other questions.

Is there a magic number for how often surveys and feedback should be asked for? I’d love to say yes, as it would make our lives easier, but the answer is no. And the reason is that it depends on how you answer the other questions.

To me the key is that it should be ‘just-in-time’. What I mean by this is that you should only ask for feedback when a) you need it and b) you’re prepared to act on it. The most frustrating thing for an employee is to be asked for feedback and then nothing happens with it. They won’t feel appreciated, valued, and next time you ask, they’ll ignore you.

I hope this will help you turn your engagement survey ‘beasts’ into ‘princes’, and create the ‘happy ending’ and employee engagement at your company.


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