How To Turn Employee Surveys Into Action

Employee surveys really only have value if they are used as a catalyst to organizational change. One of the biggest mistakes in survey research is to conduct an employee survey, encourage the highest response possible, promise action to follow and then do nothing. If after this, you try running another survey, your employees will likely punish you by not participating.

However, this is not to say that driving positive change from an employee survey is easy to do. Although defining the process itself is pretty simple - diagnose the key issues based on the data, create an Action Plan (or plans) to address the top 3-5 issues, implement that plan and evaluate progress - completing each of these steps can be pretty complex, requiring careful coordination among different levels within the organization, the allocation of adequate resources and agreement not only on what action to take but also on how to assess success.

Fortunately, there are several simple steps that you can take to create a readiness for action within your organization.

1. Build An Urgency for Action

One of the risks of employee survey research is that senior management can dismiss the findings as being unworthy of their attention, assuming that such results are unrelated to organizational performance and business success. Since this is not the case, you need to create recognition among your leadership that improving job satisfaction and engagement leads to organizational benefits that range far beyond HR. If possible, build your case with actual examples from your organization - has past survey data helped you take action to reduce turnover? Can you establish a direct link between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction? Although you should become familiar with the evidence of such links, demonstrating their impact on your own organization will help spur the need to take action on your survey findings.

Given the importance of taking action, you should not wait until after you have survey results to build this urgency for action. This needs to happen at the very start of the survey project. If not, your senior management and leadership may not realize the critical role they need to play once survey results are delivered.

There are five actions you can take to create this sense of urgency:

a) Use a survey that fits with your strategic goals
b) Ensure that all key personnel understand the business case for action based on the findings
c) Create commitment right at the top of the organization
d) Get agreement to take action
e) Plan to conduct a follow-up survey

2. Determine Accountability

The main goal of this step is to get senior management, middle management, front line supervisors, employees and any other critical decision-makers "onboard" not only with the survey process but also knowing what the follow-up steps will be and who will be responsible for which tasks. The key goal is to avoid the kind of ambiguity that can lead to such problems as task overload, solving problems independently rather than collaboratively, or taking no action at all.

The main purpose of an accountability plan is to prevent these problems through the following actions:

a) Specify what is expected of senior leadership and the various levels of management once survey results are available so that action planning can proceed in a uniform and consistent way across the organization,

b) Clarify where leadership and management are expected to make change and where they are not expected to take action. For example, policies regarding pay and benefits are typically handled at the most senior level of the organization and would not be under the influence of immediate supervisors. No one who is responsible for action planning should be expected to make decisions that are beyond their immediate control.

c) Stress that everyone has a role to play - for example, senior management should act as survey champions and drive organization-wide initiatives, department/functional leaders should focus division-specific operational or performance issues, while immediate supervisors develop local action plans that can improve the team environment on a day-to-day basis. Employees need to realize they have a critical role to play as well, including giving feedback, joining task forces, participating in focus groups and generally helping put plans into action.

d) Set clear guidelines on the scope of Action Planning. No organization can effectively work on every opportunity for improvement, so it is critical to provide direction on how to prioritize the issues to address at each level of the organization.

3. Teach How to Convert Data into Action

The goal of this step is to give all critical decision-makers a clear understanding of the specific skills, steps, and activities required to take action on their relevant survey results. Training and assistance in certain key areas can overcome barriers to effective action planning:

a) Give guidance on how to interpret survey findings and use the open-ended data.
b) Help data users manage their initial reactions to the findings, such as interpreting the findings too personally or immediately dismissing negative results.
c) Encourage each decision maker to identify action opportunities and to build a "story" that summarizes their key findings - this will help with their own planning and when communicating the plan to others.
d) Provide a template for developing and executing effective action plans.
e) Establish policies and procedures for conducting feedback meetings with employees.

4. Align Organizational Action for Maximum Impact

Before senior leaders and immediate managers start pursuing their plans, it is important to develop a process for aligning their actions. Otherwise, they may pull the organization in many different directions at once. Instead, take the following four steps so that all decision-makers work together to implement consistent local, divisional, and enterprise-wide changes:

a) Define the organization-wide strategic action priorities, since nothing creates alignment and focuses attention like a clear sense of direction. After determining your organization's strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats based on the survey results, senior management should set the priorities they want the organization to focus on. This could include areas like strategy execution, business performance, customer service, internal efficiency, cross-functional teamwork, communications, organizational culture, or leadership. Senior management should then lay out clear expectations of what they want decision-makers to do to support the organization's strategic action priorities.

b) Once enterprise-wide priorities have been established, the next step is to conduct alignment discussions throughout the organization. The purpose of these discussions is to help the various levels of management work together to ensure that local priorities are aligned "vertically" with overall enterprise-wide priorities and are aligned "horizontally" within departments and divisions.

c) Make good use of technology-based tools to help decision-makers share action plans, progress reports and "lessons learned" throughout the organization in a quick and efficient way.

d) Finally, it is important to conduct periodic reviews where decision-makers meet and discuss their progress, share their experiences and identify any issues that may be preventing action plans from working. Using these meetings to gather success stories from different parts of the organization can add positive momentum to the change process.

5. Use Goal Setting to Keep Action Plans on Track

One of the best ways to ensure that organization-wide survey action campaigns stay on course is to provide decision-makers with a series of yardsticks ? critical dates, milestones, and progress guidelines ? to guide their efforts. When it comes to survey action plans, these milestones and deadlines will ensure that action efforts will be rolled out in a timely and consistent fashion. They will also provide clear roadmaps for decision-makers to follow and ensure a coordinated approach to managing change within your organization.

Effective yardsticks should guide decision-makers through four distinct phases of the action planning process, defining the specific activities they need to take during each part of the process:

a) During the first phase of the action planning process, those responsible for creating plans need to understand, discuss, and digest their survey findings, conduct feedback meetings with employees to solicit their ideas and identify action priorities, and work with other key stakeholders to ensure planning efforts are aligned. This phase of the action planning process is complete when effective action plans have been developed and decision-makers are committed to pursuing them.

b) The second phase requires those plans to become action. When it comes to creating strategic organizational action, plans are necessary but not sufficient. Real change requires senior leaders, managers, and employees to behave in new and different ways. During the action taking phase, members of the organization need to focus on translating their action plans into new individual behaviors, group norms, and organizational practices.

c) The third phase is to evaluate how well things are working. In this stage of the process, key stakeholders should focus on the following four questions:

What did we intend to happen?
What happened?
Why did it happen that way?
How can we improve what happened?

d) Based on the action evaluation feedback, the final phase is to make adjustments to any new behaviors, norms, habits or organizational practices. After members of the organization have had a chance to practice these new behaviors, the process of evaluation and adjustment should follow, resulting in a continual cycle of individual and organizational learning and development.

6. Create a Support System for Those Needing Extra Help

For many of those responsible for action planning, accountability planning, post-survey training and well-positioned yardsticks will provide enough incentive, structure, and guidance to promote effective action taking. However, others ? particularly those facing challenging situations ? may need more assistance. With this in mind, it is important to develop a survey action support system to provide additional help to those who need it.

There are two good ways to determine who needs additional support. The first is to ask. At the end of training, ask your decision-makers if they feel clear, confident, and ready to take action based on their data. The second is to assess progress. Those who are falling behind schedule ? postponing feedback meetings, not submitting action plans on time, skipping evaluation updates with their manager ? could be in need of additional support. The following types of intervention should be used as needed:

a) Individual coaching can be effective when decision-makers need help prioritizing opportunities, identifying solutions, and developing action plans.

b) Mentoring is an excellent way to build confidence in those who are not sure how to make a specific type of action plan take effect. Based on the survey results, highly effective leaders can be paired up with those in need of help. Through this process, best practices can be shared and leadership networks can be built within the organization.

c) Meeting facilitation may be necessary if a manager is concerned about negative results and uncomfortable conducting a feedback meeting with employees. In such instances, Human Resources (HR) should meet with the manager to determine the best course of action. In particularly negative situations, it may be best for an HR representative to hold an initial meeting just with employees (without the manager present). This can ensure that employees feel free to be candid and express their concerns. Once employees have been given an opportunity to voice their concerns, the manager can be brought back in to the discussion. Ultimately, HR needs to ensure that managers and employees are working together to discuss issues and find solutions.

d) Education may be in order for decision-makers who think they have more important things to do than focus on action planning based on their employee survey results. Ensuring they know the motivational and business imperative for action is a good place to start. Peer pressure can be also effective: when these decision-makers realize that their colleagues and supervisors are serious about taking action, they are often more likely to follow suit.

e) A "Best Practices" library and first step recommendations can help hesitant decision-makers move from analysis-paralysis to action. Create brief summaries of specific actions managers can take to address employee concerns. This kind of tool will expand the way decision-makers think about various management issues and help them develop concrete action plans. Additionally, this library will give clear direction on designing the best course of action for particular situations.


At the core of this summary is a critical reality: if you are about to conduct an employee survey, you are in a position to be an agent of change in your organization. Employee surveys have the potential to improve organizational effectiveness, both from a business performance perspective and a human capital perspective. However, surveys are only useful if they lead to action. Otherwise, they can cause more harm than good.

These guidelines for translating your survey results into effective change will help you prepare your organization for the hard but meaningful work ahead and let all involved get the best value from your survey findings.

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