5 reasons why large-scale generic surveys
don’t build effective culture

By Diane Daum  

Recent events have caused many organizations to take another look at their culture, asking tough questions such as “how could we more quickly switch gears in the face of a crisis?” or “is our culture respectful to all of our employees?”  As organizations contemplate how to handle issues like safety and diversity, they may be drawn to generic off-the-shelf surveys that promise to provide them with the answers they need without requiring much effort in the design phase.   

But these initiatives are likely to fail.  Here’s why: 

1. Lack of purpose 

For culture initiatives to be successful, the organization needs to decide what kind of culture they want.  While it is important to have engaged employees, many organizations focus exclusively on enhancing engagement while ignoring aspects of their culture that have implications for other important outcomes (like how quickly they could get a new product to market).  Organizations should seek to strengthen their cultures in the areas that matter most for supporting their strategies or that allow them to more effectively manage emerging issues (such as a pandemic). Defining a target culture will ensure that any data collected or initiatives launched will be relevant to the outcomes your organization is focused on. 

2. Lack of buy-in 

When your survey is not directly connected to your organizations strategy or objectives, it is likely to become just an HR exercise, with a focus on how hiring, training, compensation and other aspects of HR policy can improve the culture.  Having a definition of the culture (and the survey) that ties into your organizational objectives creates a process that leaders are willing to stand behind and invest in.  When you are able to drive agreement among the executive team about which components of culture are most critical, they are more likely to directly support culture initiatives and encourage the participation of their teams. 

3. Lack of direction   

A generic survey may uncover multiple opportunities for focus.  How do you decide where to put your effort? Do you simply focus on the areas where the organization had the lowest scores, or was below the benchmark?  Some organizations prioritize simply by determining which areas are the strongest drivers of engagement, but again, this may ignore aspects of the culture that are key to achieving business results. Defining your desired culture up front allows you to focus more heavily on the issues that matter most. 

4. Data Gathering that is “broad” rather than “deep” 

Generic surveys usually throw a wide net, which tends to make them longer, while still only providing surface level insights.  This type of survey is a drain on the organizations’ time both from the perspective of the respondents (who are taking time to answer questions that may be less relevant) and to those responsible for acting on the results (who may be overwhelmed by the volume of data on a variety of issues).  Some organizations try to “go deep” simply by asking one question each on a variety of topics and encouraging employees to comment on each one.  While comments can be illuminating, it’s important to note that many respondents choose not to answer comment questions at all, and that when there are several open-ended questions, the later ones tend to be answered less frequently.  One way around this issue is to use a phased approach in which respondents first see a small set of broad questions, followed by a deeper dive in which more specific questions are asked in key areas. 

5. Action planning based on guesswork 

As noted above, a broad but surface-level data gathering may lead to a vague understanding of any culture problems that exist, making action planning difficult. It won’t be clear what the precise nature of the problem is, or where it needs most attention in the organization.  By gathering some deeper data in areas of concern that are tied to the organization’s strategy, the organization can create action plans to mitigate specific issues in specific segments of the population.   For example, they might find that a lack of a sense of purpose in the hourly population is due to inadequate communication to that group regarding the organizations’ vision.  Armed with these insights, the organization can now take appropriate action.   

Why CultureIQ works better 

Many of CultureIQ’s clients came to us because they previously took a generic-survey approach, and saw it fall short. What seemed to be a time- and money-saver at the start actually saved neither, putting them back at square one. They’ve found success using our platform, framework and strategic guidance to create a culture that drives business results and motivates people. 

Diane Daum is a Principal Strategist at CultureIQ.

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