hamster-wheelOne of the things that gets in the way of fostering a healthy culture in large organisations is the very thing we implement to address culture: annual staff surveys.

Although well-intentioned (we do after all want to know how our people feel about their organisational world), annual staff surveys tend to throw us onto a hamster wheel that ensures we never achieve meaningful change.

Here are just two aspects of how our reliance on quantitative staff surveys introduces constraints to meaningful change.

  • Timing: the annual staff survey cycle in large organisations leaves very little time for meaningful action. The time it takes for the results to be collated and distributed across a large organisation means that line managers and teams have precious little time – sometimes only a couple of months – to conceptualise and implement action plans before the next survey is administered. The next survey is then assessing staff sentiment amidst a flurry of hastily implemented actions, eroding confidence in the results. This is the hamster wheel of staff surveys.
  • Quality of the deep dive: the action conversations at the coalface are not meaningful. Line managers tend to engage with their teams in a Stand-And-Deliver fashion regarding the results, often just asking “Right, so what’s the problem here?” The ensuing discussion is not a real discussion, but a shallow action planning exercise based on rampant assumptions of the results that does not get to the heart of the matter.

Another challenge is that staff surveys are holy cows in our organisations. One senior HR person told me, “Aiden, don’t touch our staff survey … it’s an institution here.” So, if your staff survey is untouchable, here are some things you can look to do:

Annual staff surveys tend to absolve line managers of the responsibility to be ‘conversation starters’ in their team contexts. Instead of fostering a healthy, continuous conversation culture that regularly approaches the dimensions encapsulated in a staff survey, managers prefer to wait for the results and then deal with the issues. It’s too late by then. Counter this avoidance by helping managers understand that “the conversation” is the work that underpins productivity and effectiveness. You may want to even include it in their KPIs. Either way, facilitating conversations is a capability of 21st century leaders.

Equip your line managers to facilitate the conversations that matter around staff survey items, categories and dimensions. They may need some training, but something as simple as a conversation guide with well crafted questions may be all that is needed.

Finally, get teams to harness the power of storytelling. The results from staff surveys and team reports are clinical, bland and boring. However, there are many stories of experiences that your team could share about the items and categories in those reports. Creating an environment where these stories can be told will be an engaging process (see, addressing employee engagement!) with the potential to unlock an idea flow that will feed the action process with substance.


If your organisation is interested in reforming the holy cow that is the staff survey, you may be interested in how we use a narrative-based survey approach that combines the power of quantitative and qualitative methods.

In short, we can provide you with a dashboard that harnesses the thousands of staff experiences in your organisation, thereby equipping decision-makers to continuously keep their finger on the narrative pulse and make quick, relevant decisions.

Aiden and the team at The Narrative Lab specialise in facilitating processes that create deeper connections with the stories that matter at work. Book him to speak at your next event, facilitate a team process or to gather stories about prickly issues that are creating stuckness at work.



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