TAKING ADVANTAGE OF EMPLOYEE OPINION SURVEYS

The March 15, 2013 edition of the magazine The Week contained the following item from The Wall Street Journal on its Business news at a glance page:

“A study by the American Psychological Association found that women report higher levels of work stress than men, “as well as a gnawing sense that they are under appreciated and underpaid.”  But bad feelings are strong throughout the workforce:  61% of employees feel they lack advancement opportunities, and just half of them feel valued at work.” (P. 32)

I have seen employee opinion surveys like these many times and listened carefully to the response they often receive in organizations.  When the data is negative and unwelcome and management wishes to deny or ignore the data’s cry for corrective action, management’s rejectionist response often takes one of three forms:

When the source of the data is a national level organization like the American Psychological Association, one often hears the argument that their particular organization is so unique, that data reflecting an aggregate of national organizational responses would not apply to them.  In essence, “nothing for us to worry about, our managers are doing just fine”.

Even in cases where the employee opinion survey was conducted by an organization’s own Human Resource staff, I have marveled as I watched managers in one part of the organization choosing to assume that it is the other guys and a bunch of their  malcontents that the data reflects, surely not those who work for them.  In essence, “nothing for us to worry about; no corrective action required”.

Or management often simply chooses to attack the survey itself; its question construction, sample size, sample representation, data collection method, or statistical analysis methodology.  In something as complex as opinion surveys fraught with subjective elements and always a margin of error, a manager or management team in strict denial can easily find some reason to ignore the possible implications for their own workforce or the need for corrective change.

Looking specifically at the American Psychological Association’s data, I believe there is only one way for a manager to really know the degree to which that data actually applies to those under their responsibility:  he or she MUST DISCUSS DIRECTLY WITH HER OR HIS SUBORDINATES issues like work stress,  feeling unappreciated and underpaid,  absence of advancement opportunities, or whether they feel valued for their work.

Whatever the results of any employee opinion survey might say, they beg for a direct discussion between a manager and his or her work team.  These discussions afford individual managers a golden opportunity to open up lines of communication, to learn how their subordinates really feel and why, and to build trust.  Regardless of the larger organization’s response to survey findings, the best managers take advantage of their opportunity for learning and collaborative problem solving, by discussing the survey’s results with their subordinates and peers.

How to hold these discussions is a matter of individual preference.  Some topics will lend themselves to a group discussion where different perspectives can be brought to bear on an issue.  Other subjects — especially those where an individual may not wish to share their feelings and emotions with others — are better suited for private one-on-ones.  The better a manager knows and understands each and every one of their direct reports, the better he or she will be at making the right distinctions.

I would also caution that some negative perceptions communicated in employee opinion surveys can have very deep organizational roots, have persisted even in the face of considerable contrary evidence and will not change over night. Patience and continual attention to these perceptions is the best option.

It is also usually wise to avoid arguing with the perceptions a manager hears in survey discussions.  The important point of these discussions is to gain an understanding of how one’s subordinates actually feel about important work-related matters and to identify actions to address problems that beg for immediate constructive engagement.  Arguing that what you hear is inaccurate, only communicates close-mindedness to those you manage.

Bottom line, opinion survey or no opinion survey, one mark of a really good manager is her or his understanding that the only reliable way to stay reasonably informed about how one’s subordinate’s actually feel about important work-related topics and why, is to discuss these things with them and often.

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