By: Jen Benoit-Bryan, PhD

November 22, 2019

At Slover Linett, we focus most of our (formidable!) research chops on helping organizations connect more deeply with their audiences and communities. But sometimes we turn these skills inward to inform our own organizational learning and growth. For instance, staff surveys.

Even at a small firm like Slover Linett, anonymous staff surveys can help deepen your understanding of professional satisfaction, culture, and organizational values — and the progress you’re making, or need to be making, in certain areas. Staff surveys can inform strategic planning, process improvements, and how you prioritize investment and support within your organization.

We recently completed a survey of our team focused on some of the values we’ve been discussing for years: purpose, mastery, autonomy, and culture. (You may recognize those first three from Daniel Pink’s influential 2010 book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us.) What we learned from the survey will help shape our annual plan and budget for 2020.

Here are seven tips to keep in mind if you’d like to develop or revamp a staff survey at your organization:

  1. Identify a small survey group or committee responsible for design, communication, analysis, and reporting. We’ve found that having several people working together helps keep the initiative on track and the whole organization accountable.
  2. Spend time thinking about what’s most important to measure and understand—not just what’s important for the leaders, but also for the staff members themselves. (After all, you’ll be sharing out and discussing the findings at all levels.) Your mission, annual plan, or strategic plan may be helpful as you think about what values and perceptions to measure. It’s tempting to dive right into design, but a coherent framework and set of goals for what you want to learn will help you prioritize and increase the value of the process.
  3. If your organization has conducted a staff survey in the past, don’t just repeat it. Take the opportunity to rethink the importance of each question. Is it still relevant? Has the context changed? How could it better inform a decision at your organization? Yes, it’s helpful to track consistent metrics over time to see how attitudes are changing, but only if the question itself is still meaningful. We added more new items to our survey in 2019 than we kept from previous years.
  4. Consider how (and if) you can promise anonymity to staff respondents. One way to boost confidentiality and trust is to look at responses to each question in the aggregate (rather than viewing each respondent’s answers across all questions). In addition, responses to closed-ended questions (like rating scales or select-all-that-apply lists) are generally more anonymous than open-ended responses (where respondents type in their answer). In our recent staff survey, we included just a few open-ended questions in order to maximize anonymity, and most of those were follow-ups to closed-ended ones. Crucially, be up front with the whole staff about how you’re handling anonymity.
  5. Once you’ve developed the survey, consider asking for input from people with different roles in the organization before the questionnaire is final. Have them “road test” the survey and let you know if anything was confusing or hard to answer, or if there’s anything they might want to know that’s not yet included.
  6. Think about how you’ll share results and how you might use the data to inform decisions across the organization. We recommend sharing the results with staff quite widely, facilitating conversations as a group as well as one-on-one conversations between managers and their direct reports. Consider what changes your organization might be willing to make based on survey results. Are there pieces of your annual plan, professional development budget, or other plans that the survey results can inform? Be transparent with staff about how their input shapes decisions at the organization (even in limited ways), so everyone can see how the organization hopes to grow and learn.
  7. Finally, thank everyone for taking the time to share their thoughts and feedback and celebrate the process together, making this kind of collective introspection and self-assessment an ongoing value.

I’d love to hear from you about these seven tips. Are there more you’d add to the list?


Photo: Members of the Slover Linett team pose with their works of art following a ‘paint and sip’ staff appreciation outing.

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