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Survey fatigue? Blame the leader, not the question

While survey fatigue is real, there are many misconceptions around what drives it and how to overcome it.
Taylor Lauricella

Advises organizations on a range of culture and talent topics with particular expertise in driving behavior change at scale through capability building, cultural transformation, and digital solutions

Bill Schaninger

Designs and manages large-scale organizational transformations, strengthening business performance through enhanced culture, values, leadership, and talent systems

This is a Golden Age for employee surveys. The assessment industry is dramatically growing, creating more options than ever, while new tech-enabled assets and increased accessibility make surveys easier than ever to deploy. This comes on top of a shift towards prioritizing employee listening—particularly in light of COVID-19.

Yet, we often hear from clients that their people suffer from survey fatigue, leading to a hesitancy to deploy diagnostics. While survey fatigue is real and deserves leaders’ attention, there are many misconceptions around what drives it and how to overcome it.

What drives survey fatigue

Survey fatigue refers to a lack of motivation to participate in assessments—and has the potential to impact response behavior. For example, employees who experience survey fatigue may be less likely to participate in a survey or complete it as instructed (e.g., selecting the same answer for each question), which can lead to inaccurate results.

A common belief is that survey fatigue is driven by the number and length of surveys deployed. That turns out to be a myth. We reviewed results across more than 20 academic articles and found that, consistently, the number one driver of survey fatigue was the perception that the organization wouldn’t act on the results. This was often informed by past experiences, where employees had not seen any communications or action as a result of previous surveys.

The opposite holds true: When organizations share and act on results, research suggested that employees were much more likely to participate in future surveys—and even respond more favorably.

How leaders can prevent survey fatigue

  1. Select well-validated surveys that are easy to act on. Leaders should always deploy surveys that are psychometrically sound and easy to act on. For example, surveys that include questions that measure both overall effectiveness and items about the frequency of desirable behaviors make it much easier to turn insights into action.
  2. Give yourself enough time to act on results. It’s critical to only deploy surveys at a pace that enables leaders to both communicate and act on results. For some organizations, this may mean an annual or biannual diagnostic; for others, quarterly pulses are best. Consider the North American retailer that wanted to assess safety perceptions after returning to work. Timing was key to their strategy—fewer pulses ensured they could effectively respond to feedback while providing ample time to prepare the next survey.
  3. Cascade results to the frontline. Once survey results are known, it is imperative that they are cascaded throughout the full organization—not just to top leaders. To help ensure the results of their culture diagnostic reached all 30,000+ employees, an advanced industrials company used multiple channels to promote them, including internal social media posts, digital signage in manufacturing plants, and a series of read-outs and discussion sessions with frontline and hourly workers.
  4. Develop and implement action plans. Leaders should use results from each diagnostic to develop initiatives that will move the needle on improving the results and enable them to reach their aspiration. These should be designed and treated the same as any “performance” related initiative, with an owner, KPIs, milestones, and a cadence to monitor progress and adjust plans if needed.
  5. Implement “quick wins” to show you’re listening. Leaders should also swiftly seize opportunities to signal that they are listening and change is happening. For example, shortly after their annual employee survey, an agricultural company deployed a personalized nudging platform to build habits around a subset of behaviors that were identified as problematic in the survey.

While survey fatigue is a real problem, the answer isn’t to avoid deploying diagnostics altogether, but rather to be more diligent in communicating and acting on employees’ feedback. When utilized and acted on, surveys can then drive needed improvements in culture, leadership behaviors, and broader business operations.

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