Reframe Your Employee Survey Program for Optimal Leadership Buy-In

At least three quarters of US companies conduct some type of employee survey. Unfortunately, all this effort to gather data often fails to result in meaningful action. A 2020 study conducted by the Human Capital Institute found that 41% of organizations don’t take any action at all, while 26% are struggling in their attempts.

HR leaders report that the biggest actioning challenge they encounter is a lack of support and buy-in from senior leaders. It would be easy to conclude that HR needs to find ways to convince or persuade leaders that survey input matters and merits action. But what if there was a better way? As Yoda in Star Wars might suggest:

You are the answer you seek.

After consulting to HR leaders for more than two decades, I’ve come to believe that the root of the problem is that employee listening and engagement surveys are often seen as a “check the box” exercise. However, when surveys are focused on aligning culture to business objectives, however, HR leaders naturally gain stronger support and active engagement from senior leaders throughout the entire process. 

How Employee Engagement Survey Programs Fall Short for Leadership

When surveys are focused solely on finding out what leaders and HR can do to increase engagement, attention gets focused on “fixing” low scores, resulting in reactive responses. In the worst case, surveys stop being perceived as a business tool and start being relegated to routine transactional activity. Analyzing and acting on survey results gets pushed lower on the list of executive priorities and generating energy for action gets harder. In the best circumstances, initiatives are started, improvements are made, and engagement scores increase. Unfortunately, there is still a limit to the shelf-life of engagement. Trying to improve engagement beyond a point becomes a fruitless – and frustrating – endeavor.

From Employee Engagement to Purposeful Culture

At CultureIQ, we believe the answer lies in shifting the focus of your survey program from employee engagement to purposeful culture. Every organization has a culture – some are actively cultivated, and some are unintentional. In either case, culture influences how individuals interact and get work done. 

What is culture?

Culture is like a magnet, pulling people to behave in consistent ways – even when those behaviors run counter to an organization’s strategy. When the existing culture is aligned with a firm’s strategy, it acts like a tailwind – propelling business growth. On the other hand, a culture that is misaligned with strategy can turn into a headwind that stops or slows successful strategy execution. 

Read our blog post: Culture and strategy can’t be served separately

Leaders have started to take note. According to a recent survey by the National Bureau of Economic Research, nine out of 10 CEOs & CFOs believe improving culture would increase their company’s business value and performance. 

“Focusing on culture rather than engagement can elevate your survey program from the realm of the transactional to the heights of strategic impact.”

Despite increased awareness of the importance of culture, many executives have difficulty understanding what culture means, or how to use it to drive business growth. This problem provides an opportunity for strategic HR leaders to shine. Focusing on culture rather than engagement can elevate your survey program from the realm of the transactional to heights of strategic impact. This is because you are fundamentally shifting the purpose of your program…

  • from HR issues to business Issue
  • from reactive to proactive 
  • from general information gathering to targeted inquiry 
  • from masses of data to meaningful intelligence

I had the good fortune to speak with two strategic HR leaders who have made this shift. 

  • Narelle Beurle, Head of Organisation Development for CitiPower, Powercor and United Energy in Australia remembers when surveys were all about keeping employees happy. Today she says, “I don’t believe in employee satisfaction surveys. You can never fully satisfy everyone. Now we explicitly connect survey input back to our business strategy and culture transformation priorities.” Our CEO and Executive team are fully engaged in the survey design, encouraging participation and sharing detailed results with their teams. The Executive also sponsor 3-4 improvement area projects each year as a result of the survey and communicate these to all employees”. 
  • Helen Harris, Training & Organizational Development Principal at the Electric Power Research Institute told me “We’re uncovering new ways to make EPRI an even better place to succeed” and went on to describe how the institute utilizes survey results to pinpoint opportunities for the organization to create a culture that is more collaborative, adaptable, and nimble. 

Ultimately, reframing your survey program to focus on cultivating a purposeful culture will increase its value and generate meaningful results. Instead of begging for buy-in and support, HR leaders who employ this approach will see business leaders lining up to discover changes they could make to enable their business to flourish.

Want to learn more? 

Download our whitepaper: From Employee Engagement to Purposeful Culture

Wendy Mack,

Sr. Director, Research & Advisory at CultureIQ

As Sr. Director for Research & Advisory I lead the teams responsible for conducting applied research and creating tools, templates, and other resources to support our customers in cultivating a purposeful culture. I am honored to advise, partner with, and connect Culture Masters from a variety of organizations across industries.

Check out these blog posts written by our CEO and Culture Strategists:

CultureIQ: What do we stand for?

5 ways our clients create better cultures

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