Co-authored by Maurik Dippel (co-founder CircleLytics Dialogue) and Dr Dieter Veldsman (The Academy to Innovate HR)
In this article, we reflect on the value of employee surveys and the necessity and impact of adding collective wisdom, ie collective intelligence to surveying and engaging employees. Unfortunately, surveys are often used in isolation, and, without context, are challenging to follow up, and can negatively impact employee trust and collaboration. We propose using a mixed-method approach that includes dialogic techniques to drive continual bottom-up influence, gather wisdom from the broader group, and reflect on others to inform and guide action. Dialogue enables employees to learn from others’ perspectives and answers, provides context that helps to prioritize, and gives meaning to others’ textual responses. The ability to interpret within context and harness the wisdom from various interactions and relationships cannot be replicated by algorithms used in isolation. As such, we argue for a data-informed approach that still recognizes the human elements of employee voice strategies. Within this context, we reflect on the nature of the changing employee/employer relationship and how we believe this should be reflected in elevated employee voice and listening practices to be future-of-work-proof.
At the outset of this article, we need to state that we believe employee surveying is a critical component of any employee listening strategy; however, we argue that they need to be used as part of a broader employee listening, leadership, and culture perspective.
The origin of the employee survey
The utilization of employee surveys can be traced back to the early 1920s when surveys were first used to better understand employee attitudes. A notable figure during this time was J. David Houser, who is credited as one of the first practitioners using advanced quantitative analysis to better understand employee attitudes. During 1924 and 1925, Houser interviewed numerous leaders and realized that there was very limited understanding of employee views and opinions, impacting factors such as employee morale and job satisfaction and that more methods were required to gather these insights.
Despite all the progress made during the 1920s and 1930s, only a few innovative firms utilized surveys as part of their employee engagement strategies. In the US, the rise of polling organizations post World War 1 started with companies such as Gallup, Roper, and Crossley focusing on the commercial market research sector in the 1930s. During the Second World War, the Office of War Information (OWI) in the United States employed firms such as Gallup and academic psychological researchers such as Rensis Likert to better understand civilian morale. During this time, the debate regarding the value of open/closed survey questioning and interviewing started to take shape. The government demanded swift processing and delivery of results and methods that could be utilized at scale. This need slowly tilted the preferred method of inquiry towards surveys as opposed to more detailed open-ended qualitative analysis. Challenges associated with open-ended data and the amount of time available versus the time required back then for interpretation contributed to organizations’ preference for survey-based quantitative methods.
Speed over context, scale over depth, and generalized themes over in-depth understanding reigned supreme. Unfortunately, for a long time, this preference has remained, and is still, favored by numerous organizations today, even though the potential barriers that inhibited the use of qualitative analysis on a large scale are no longer relevant.
The changing nature of employee voice and listening strategies
The last number of years have seen significant shifts in the employee/employer relationship and psychological contract expectations. Employees demand more autonomy, they want to contribute and have a say in decisions that impact them, as well as be able to influence the direction and scope of their work. Collaboration and ways of work have become paramount considerations for how work is designed within the theme of co-creation and involving diverse and varied perspectives. In terms of leadership, we have also seen a move away from hierarchical leadership styles and more contextual and situational styles becoming the norm, e.g., distributed leadership and “asking questions” instead of “telling the answers.”
Against this backdrop, employee voice and listening strategies still need to evolve sufficiently from their roots described earlier in this article. Even though technology and analysis techniques have improved since the 1920s, especially in the last years, mixed-method approaches are not utilized in most organizations, except those with significant and skilled organizational development or psychology teams. This, however, is not the norm, and as such, in most organizations, employee feedback is restricted to an annual employee survey, simplified pulse surveys, focus groups, and interviews for some qualitative understanding. These efforts, even though valuable, often lead towards interpretation outside of context, delay in taking action, and leaves employees feeling unheard and their problems or needs unaddressed.
The absence of co-creation during surveying and the lack of contextualized, prioritized textual outcomes slow the process of taking effective measures and actions. Therefore, HR and managers have a hard time turning employee survey data into swift, supported-by-the-people action, typically showing follow-up cycles of many weeks. Point-in-time feedback, i.e., pulse surveys, does not solve the absence of allowing employees to collaborate, collectively process and give meaning to others’ answers, and emerge more reliable or even new insights and priorities. These, still single-loop survey techniques allow limited opportunity for the workforce to collectively contribute towards the solution and remain merely a diagnostic exercise that is great at identifying areas of concern but limited in its ability to find solutions. “Gauging temperatures, but lacking sufficient, validated insights to make decisions, “a Director from Phillips, the multinational conglomerate, expressed to us.
Furthermore, the acceptance by employees of change has dropped, according to research, by 49% over the last years. In addition, scientific research proves that employees are key to the successful implementation of significant company decisions. “Nothing about us, without us.” A saying that represents employees’ willingness, hence instinctive demand to be heard, to be included in change that concerns them. A fair, inclusive process that allows a timely voice to employees is essential to make sustainable change happen. At the same time, leadership is regarded to take listening and thus asking questions to the next level, hence to take employees (finally) seriously for what they think, see and experience in their own words.
A revised approach must be adopted to allow the organization to co-create the solutions required to move forward through and with employees. We position three shifts required for a reframed perspective to employee listening strategies.
Shift 1: From single-loop methods to multi-loop continual dialogue
Regular survey methodologies (single loop), long or short, require an additional layer of dialogue for contextualization by people before being processed by AI. Multi-loop surveying enables leadership to include people in company matters that are most pressing, complex, and impactful and allows them to submit answers and successively review and enrich others’ answers. Look at this example:
“How would you score trust in management. Please comment.”
- First step: “How would you score trust in management, and can you clarify your score for others and leadership to learn from? [deeper thinking instead of ‘leave a comment’]
- Second step: “Which answers inspire you most, get your support, and what’s your tip to turn this into action?” [actionable, validated insights]
- Third step: “How do you score the question about trust in management on second thoughts while viewing others’ answers?” [revised, up to 60% more reliable numbers]
Deliberate open questions and disclosing everyone else’s answers to employees is not merely a sign of trust, hence increasing people’s openness to change their perspective, but also a way of collectively processing complex information and collaborating to solve problems together. A single-loop surveying process approaches employees as mere individuals by seeking their feedback quantitatively (scale questions for structured feedback) and, quite often, allowing a comment field. A multi-loop listening process allows employees to review the textual answers submitted by others on questions that deepen your topic and allows them to re-do their closed answers. This new level of listening considers people as a living, learning network of individuals, hence a collective, inter-connected group, instead of only individuals.
This innovative step triggers interpersonal learning, makes employees more informed about a diversity of thoughts from others and allows them to rate others’ answers and explain their scores via a recommendation or explanation. This means they analyze, validate and enrich each others’ answers. Based on that, they may re-do their closed answers, which research shows is done by up to 60% of individuals, hence, impacting positively accuracy of numerical results compared to a single-loop survey.
Example from the field:
A company listened to 6,500 employees to co-analyze why retention metrics were decreasing, and illness was increasing. 70% of employees explained in their own words what they considered most important for these challenges. Over 4,000 feedback items were processed via the first round (first loop). AI and natural language processing resulted in a list of possible leading topics. Still, no conclusions could be drawn, and no decisions were made. Not until the 2nd round (second loop) was executed: 6,500 employees were included to review and validate, ie. prioritize the best contributions from their co-workers, and were asked for their recommendations. Their second, more valuable thoughts revealed that many (frequently mentioned) topics from the 1st round, were no longer considered the most important. Other topics were pushed up and some contributions and topics were pushed down, hence rejected. In a matter of days, the company made a tremendous impact by taking people seriously and improving on these key matters.
Shift 2: Seeking organizational wisdom through connected employees
The African proverb “the wisdom of the fish lies in the water” describes the idea that the wisdom of the organizational system lies within its people. Importantly, this approach does not differentiate between level or role but instead views the organization as a collective consciousness that moves and contributes to the collective perspective the organization holds. Expertise, solutions, and critical thinking can be found anywhere in the organization and are not represented by reporting lines and organizational charts.
Given the rising complexity of organizations and current trends towards less top-down and more bottom-up driven decision-making (even towards fully “decentralized autonomous” organizations), this further positions the requirement for parts of the organization to solve problems independently within their context. To make this practical, decentralized systems need to be given the power to make decisions in the best interest of the broader organization, yet with the knowledge of the context and localized realities that would make the decision meaningful. Furthermore, employee listening strategies in this context need to provide more opportunities for input from others and to build upon the ideas and contributions, regardless of rank, role, or status. To truly leverage the power of diversity of thought and multi-perspective thinking, an organizational culture that prioritizes psychological safety, open feedback, and transparency will be paramount to the success of a more open dialogical approach. This deepens connectedness, hence connecting people to topics that matter most. Increased connectedness positively relates to higher retention and better company performance.
Shift 3: Reframe the purpose of feedback
Traditionally, diagnostic approaches relied on the premise that feedback was provided to look back on last year’s – or now with pulse surveys, previous quarter’s or month’s – results and key topics. Executive teams spent hours poring over numerical survey results and identifying themes from a collection of comment fields and language processing results. By pursuing a dialogical approach, the purpose of feedback is not to seek an answer but rather to contribute a new perspective to build upon the collective intelligence of the organization. Feedback is provided with the goal and intent of someone else responding, building upon, and incorporating the feedback into their actions. The dialogical approach sees value in the process of connecting through feedback. It uses the opportunity to enhance collective learning, and to engage and build new perspectives in a much faster way, reducing time to action by 90%, as practices show. A shared truth and meaning are constantly created through conversation with a factual and evidence-based contribution toward the ever-evolving dialogue.
Example from the field: SpaarneGasthuis*
Leadership strives for a culture of dialogue, connectedness, and collective learning and sacrificed benchmarking-oriented survey technology (engagement surveys) to replace this with continual dialogue. While deploying dialogues at any scale, centrally (full workforce) and decentrally via teams and departments, they’ve identified and improved many key matters, such as patient safety, learning & development, leadership development, retention, and so on. Employees highly appreciate being involved in matters that concern them. A culture of engaged change enables leadership to move forward faster and respond to new circumstances more efficiently and effectively. Employee listening is genuinely about listening to their voices and how they reflect on each others’ perspectives.
*Healthcare provider with 4,500 employees
Surveys have a place and are important, but they need to be used in context as part of a more thorough mixed methods inquiry process. Primarily, surveys can collect numerical data to gauge temperature, not to understand nor solve problems and underpin decision-making. We now have the tools to incorporate qualitative and validated insights at any scale and in real-time, giving richer and more robust insights based on collaborative intelligence: produced by connected people, challenging, reflecting on, and assessing others’ views. Continual dialogue is required to harness the wisdom of the organization, yet this can only be done by leadership that promotes a relationship of trust and transparency towards employees and a deep understanding of people being the cornerstone of any change or organizational development.