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Conducting employee surveys effectively

Dr. Simon Moss


Often, organizations and consultants need to conduct culture surveys, climate surveys, engagement surveys, or employee opinion surveys--all intended to ascertain the perceptions of employees and managers about the organization. These assessments are plagued with complications. For example:

Increasing the response rate

Step 1. Surveys could be divided into two main sections: a shorter section, of perhaps 20 questions, and a longer section, of perhaps 50 questions. Respondents should be told "You can complete one or both of these sections. The first section can be completed within about 5 minutes. After you complete these questions, you will be asked whether or not you would like to complete the second section as well".

The first section should include the most vital questions. In addition, this section should end with questions that relate to integrity and consistency, such as "My behavior always aligns with the values of this organization". Furthermore, this section should end with appreciation, such as "We thank you for being so cooperative and helpful".

After individuals agree to fulfill a minor request, such as complete a short survey, they are more likely to fulfill a subsequent major request, such as complete a longer survey, but only if they like to perceive themselves as consistent and stable rather than unpredictable and complex (Guadagno, Asher, Demaine, & Cialdini, 2001 & see Preference for consistency). After these individuals comply with a minor request, they will perceive themselves as cooperative and helpful. Because these individuals select behaviors that are consistent with their perception of themselves, they will continue to act cooperatively and helpfully. Hence, they are more likely to comply with subsequent requests.

Step 2. To encourage individuals to complete a lengthy survey, the inconvenience of this act should be acknowledged explicitly. For example, preface the request to complete a survey with phrases such as "Please complete this survey& we know it's inconvenient, but it's also important".

Individuals are more likely to comply with some request, such as complete a survey, if the inconvenience of this act is highlighted rather than concealed (Werner, Stoll, Birch, & White, 2002). When the message does not acknowledge the inconvenience of this act, individuals feel their needs and feelings are not understood or appreciated. As a consequence, they do not perceive the message as credible and, thus, disregard the request altogether.

Step 3. In addition, to increase the response rate, the organization should directly highlight their need to seek help, with explicit statements such as "We would really like you to help us improve the organization...". This sentence can exacerbate the shame that individuals experience when they refuse to help (Flynn & Lake, 2008), which ultimately increases the response rate.

Improving the accuracy of responses

Step 1. At the beginning of this survey, respondents should be asked to reach some complex decision first, such as whether or not they feel the number of performance appraisals should be increased. They should be informed that perhaps they should trust their intuition, rather than reflect upon the issue carefully. That is, they should be told that intuition tends to generate better decisions--decisions they are less likely to regret. In particular, when individuals do not trust their intuition, their responses are often more contrived and deliberate rather than instinctive and accurate (e.g., Jordan, Whitfield, & Zeigler-Hill, 2007).

Some evidence indicates that individuals will respond to questions more honestly when they feel composed or enthusiastic rather than anxious or rejected. For example, when individuals feel anxious or distressed, they experience the need to comply the norms of society and the expectations of someone else (e.g., Baumann & Kuhl, 2005). They will, therefore, become more inclined to distort their responses to impress recruiters, for example.

Step 2. Hence, the first few questions on a survey should be designed to curb anxiety and agitation. Examples include questions such as "Can you specify an aspiration you would like to achieve in a few years--and one act you have undertaken to pursue this goal" (e.g., Koole, Smeets, van Knippenberg, & Dijksterhuis, 2006).

Presenting specific, feasible, effective, informative, and validated recommendations.

Often, organizations or consultants construct reports that summarize the key findings--perhaps the key strengths and limitations. Sometimes, towards the end, is a section that outlines a few recommendations to improve the organization, department, or unit. Nevertheless, these recommendations are often:

To overcome these drawbacks, reports should present recommendations that are derived from the latest, surprising scientific discoveries on how to promote wellbeing, engagement, progress, and performance. A few examples are presented below:

Recommendations to improve cohesion within teams or workgroups

Step 1. Managers should evaluate the extent to which employees have acquired additional skills, undertaken roles they have never assumed before, demonstrated effort and enthusiasm, suggested tactics that could be applied to increase efficiency, and implemented these tactics. These evaluations should significantly influence decisions that affect pay, bonuses, and promotions. This focus on developing skills and implementing effective practices rather than achieving targets and demonstrating competence enhances cooperation (Porter, 2005).

Step 2. On some attributes, team members should be as similar as possible to one another. They should, for example, share similar values. To illustrate, colleagues tend to work more effectively together if both individuals prefer to show initiative and engage in risky behaviors, partly to achieve lofty goals, or if both individuals prefer to avoid risks and minimize errors or problems. Specifically, employees are more likely to feel motivated when they feel they can demonstrate their inherent inclination to embrace or avoid risks (Hirschfeld, Thomas, & Lankau, 2006).

Step 3. On other attributes, however, team members should not be similar to one another. Diversity in the extent to which individuals are extraverted and dominant is important. Team members are more likely to feel a sense of conflict with each other if they are all equally dominant and sociable in style (Neuman, Wagner, & Christiansen, 1999& see also Promoting teamwork).

Recommendations to promote motivation

Step 1.

When supervisors encouraged employees to engage in some task, they should express questions like "Is that OK?". Supervisors should highlight that employees do not need to begin immediately--otherwise, these employees might feel a sense of pressure rather than autonomy.

Feelings of autonomy afford a sense of vitality and energy. As a consequence, individuals can more readily curb their impulse to engage in more enjoyable or relaxing activities (Muraven, Gagne, & Rosman, 2008& see also Engaging employees and Achieving goals).

Recommendations to promote wellbeing

Step 1. Employees should be informed that dejection often escalates when individuals strive to fulfill the standards that other people, such as managers or family, impose (Luxton & Wenzlaff, 2006). They should, therefore, consider which of their personal goals and aspirations differ from the standards that other individuals impose. They should then engage in one activity that fulfils a personal goal (see Alleviating anxiety and Diminishing dejection).

Step 2. Individuals should be encouraged to concede some of their limitations or problems--issues that constrain their performance or wellbeing, such as difficulties with accounting or public speaking. After individuals express their limitations, they feel less motivated to suppress these concerns, ultimately enhancing their self esteem and resilience (Borton, Markovitz, & Dieterich, 2005 & see Ironic rebound).

Recommendations to promote respect, rather than aggression, amongst colleagues

Step 1. Supervisors could highlight the significance of all work activities that employees undertake. They could, for example, assert "We will need to solve this issue. Your work is very important for the development of future technologies, which could help many people. So, we will need to consider these issues carefully".

Aggression sometimes arises when individuals feel a sense of threat or vulnerability (McGregor, Lieberman, Greenberg, Solomon, Arndt, Simon, & Pyszczynski, 2006). This feeling diminishes when they conceptualize their life as meaningful (see also Curbing anger and aggression and Fostering altruism and cooperation).

Recommendations to promote the reputation of individuals or organizations

Step 1. On websites or brochures, biographic information about relevant personnel is often provided. Each biography should be short rather than long, only specifying two or three traits or interests of this person. Similarly, when individuals meet a stranger, they should not specify too many of their interests or perspectives. Individuals are less inclined to like someone if they know many, rather than few, facts about this person (Norton, Frost, & Ariely, 2006).

Simplify the reporting of findings

Often, organizations and consultants prepare reports that comprise many pages of findings, graphs, and tables. Accordingly, managers feel overwhelmed with data and, therefore, tend to dismiss the entire exercise rather than engage with the process. Several measures can be considered to circumvent this problem.

Step 1. Before the data is analyzed, all managers should be asked to estimate the average response of employees to each question. For example, consider the survey below. A manager might estimate the average response of employees in his or her workgroup might be 3.5 for the first question, 3.7 for the second question, and 4.5 for the third question.

Question Strongly disagree Disagree Neutral Agree Strongly agree
My team is cooperative 1 2 3 4 5
My team is motivated 1 2 3 4 5
Managers listen to employees 1 2 3 4 5

Step 2. Analysts should identify questions in which the average response diverges from the expectations of managers. For example, the below presents the average response to Question 1 in three sites--as well as expected response and profit in these locations. At Site A, the average and expected responses do not differ appreciably. At Site B, and to a lesser extent at Site C, the actual response was less than was the expected response and the manager had overestimated the cooperation within teams.

Data on "My team is cooperative"

Department Actual average Expected average Profit
Production - Site A 1.6 1.5 $9,000,000
Production - Site B 1.1 2.8 $1,400,000
Production - Site C 1.7 2.7 $1,400,00

Step 3. Analysts should determine whether divergence from expectations correlates with some measure of performance. For example, in the previous table, the limited sample of data indicates that perhaps the divergence from expectations is inversely related to profit. When managers overestimated the cooperation within teams, profit seemed to diminish.

Responses that diverge from the expectations of managers, and also correlate with some measure--such as profit, growth, satisfaction, or retention--are very informative. Information about other responses are less informative and do not need to be reported.

Simplify the questionnaire

Often, the surveys that organizations administer comprise too many questions. To reduce the number of items, several procedures should be considered.

Step 1. If the survey has already been administered in the past, the data can be subjected to multiple regression analyses to identify redundant questions. In particular, analysts could undertake a multiple regression analyses in which:

Step 2. Sometimes, consultants deliberately include several questions that all assess the same broad concept, such as job satisfaction. Several questions can enhance the reliability and validity of the measure

Nevertheless, previous research indicates that often one question is usually sufficient for the purposes of employee surveys. That is, the marginal increase in reliability and validity is not usually warranted in these contexts (e.g., Wanous, Reichers, & Hudy, 1997& see also Single item measures).

Step 3. Not all questions are necessary pertinent to all departments or units within an organization. Conceivably, organizations can validate an extensive pool, of 200 items for example, and each department might choose the 50 most relevant for their purposes.

Step 4. Organizations need to ensure the questions relate to some validated theories, formulated to predict key outcomes such as engagement, wellbeing, progress, and productivity. For example, organizations might apply the principles stipulated in the document Engaging employees to identify the characteristics of organizations that affect engagement. Next, questions can be derived from these principles. Examples of questions and the corresponding principles are specified below.

Key facets to assess

Recent studies have shown that individuals often behave optimally when a specific system, called extension memory, is activated (Baumann, Kuhl, & Kazen, 2005& Kuhl, 2000). When this system is activated, individuals are often more intuitive, flexible, resilient, cooperative, and creative, at least on some dimensions (Baumann & Kuhl, 2005& Bolte, Goschke, & Kuhl, 2003& Kuhl, Kazen, & Koole, 2006). In other words, individuals seem to act optimally when this system is activated.

Extension memory is activated whenever individuals feel a profound sense of security. This sense of security diminishes their anxiety or agitation--rapidly and effortlessly--activating extension memory (Kuhl, 2000). Second, extension memory is activated if individuals utilize their intuition, rather than formal, systematic rules and logic, to reach decisions and choose behaviors.

The optimal organization should introduce provisions and initiatives that, ultimately, instill a profound sense of security in employees. That is, these employees should be able to override this anxiety--seamlessly, effortlessly, and unconsciously. When employees experience this capacity, they become more resilient, loyal, flexible, creative, intuitive, and honest (see Action orientation and Broaden and build theory).

To foster this security, employees should endorse the following statements if they completed a workplace assessment:


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Baumann, N., Kuhl, J., & Kazen, M. (2005). Left-hemispheric activation and self-infiltration: Testing a neuropsychological model of internalization. Motivation and Emotion, 29, 135-163.

Bolte, A., Goschke, T., & Kuhl, J. (2003). Emotion and intuition: Effects of positive and negative mood on implicit judgments of semantic coherence. Psychological Science, 14, 416-421.

Borton, J. L. S., Markovitz, L. J., & Dieterich, J. (2005). Effects of suppressing negative self-referent thoughts on mood and self-esteem. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24, 172-180.

Flynn, F. J., & Lake, V. K. B. (2008). If you need help, just ask: Underestimating compliance with direct requests for help. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 128-143.

Guadagno, R. E., Asher, T., Demaine, L. J., & Cialdini, R. B. (2001). When saying yes leads to saying no: Preference for consistency and the reverse foot in-the-door effect. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 859-867.

Hirschfeld, R. R., Thomas, C. H., & Lankau, M. J. (2006). Achievement and avoidance motivational orientations in the domain of mentoring. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 68, 524-537.

Kuhl, J. (2000). A functional-design approach to motivation and volition: The dynamics of personality systems interactions. In M. Boekaerts, P. R. Pintrich, & M. Zeidner (Eds.), Self-regulation: Directions and challenges for future research (pp. 111-169). New York: Academic Press.

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Luxton, D. D., & Wenzlaff, R. M. (2006). Self-esteem uncertainty and depression vulnerability. Cognition and Emotion, 19, 611-622.

McGregor, H. A., Lieberman, J., Greenberg, J,. Solomon, S., Arndt, J., Simon, L., & Pyszczynski, T. (2006). Terror management and aggression: evidence that mortality salience motivates aggression against worldview-threatening others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 590-605.

Muraven, M., Gagne, M., & Rosman, H. (2008). Helpful self-control: Autonomy support, vitality, and depletion. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 573-585.

Neuman, G. A., Wagner, S. H., & Christiansen, N. D. (1999). The relationship between work-team personality composition and the job performance of teams. Group & Organization Management, 24, 28-45.

Porter, C. O. L. H. (2005). Goal orientation: Effects on backing up behavior, perfomance, efficacy, and commitment in teams. Journal of Applied Psychology, 90, 811-818.

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Werner, C. M., Stoll, R., Birch, P., & White, P. H. (2002). Clinical validation and cognitive elaboration: Signs that encourage sustained recycling. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 24, 185-203.

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Last Update: 5/15/2016