Why do we bother with Employee Surveys?

When corporations wanted employees who did only what they were told, employee surveys may have served some purpose. They were rooted in the traditional command-and-control structures, and, no doubt, provided management with a barometer for employee feeling. They may even still provide useful information on improvements to the staff canteen , or how to better manage the car park.  But, can employee surveys provide anything useful in businesses that espouse employee empowerment and forward-thinking organisational learning? I am not convinced they can.

They encourage behaviours that leave employees and management in their traditional places. They do not encourage accountability by employees, and they compel management to feel that they need to fix the things that employees tell them need fixing.  Neither of these results is healthy and neither does anything to transform businesses or organisations into genuine learning systems. In fact, what we get is individual defensive reasoning and organisational level defensive routines.

Employees who are not bought in to strategy or company values, will always be only too ready to tell management what’s wrong. What they are less likely to do is examine the thorny issues surrounding their own dependence and their own lack of responsibility and accountability. And, when management move to address the ‘often superficial’ issues raised, they simply reinforce the status quo, rather than holding people to account to be part of the deeper problems and solutions that could truly transform the organisation.

Managers and Leaders  today need employees who think constantly and creatively about the organisation and how it can be continuously improved. They need intrinsic motivation from all and expect more from everyone involved. They do a disservice to employees and to the organisation as a whole if they continue to play the ‘false survey game’.

For a deeper examination of this topic with some great examples that bring the pitfalls to life, I recommend you read Chris Argyris’ paper.

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