Board Members and Staff Surveys: Yes, get them AND be careful!

The staff survey is a long-standing, valuable way to get feedback about the organization for all involved, top to bottom. Board members should absolutely pay close attention to them, but they should also be very careful with them. They can be misleading.

By Kevin Smith

Board members are you getting the full value that the CU can get from the staff survey? Are you getting the results and do you know what’s being done as a result of the information? The value of staff surveys can be tremendous, for all involved. If you’re not using them, you’re missing out. But simply running a survey every year and “using” a survey to its full effectiveness are two very different things. Often, in the TEAM Resources experience, the board is not seeing the full value of this resource; they could be getting significantly more out of them. Boards must make sure they know what they’re looking at and how to understand the context of the survey so that they interpret the results correctly. It’s trickier than it sounds.

Value to Staff

  • Being heard
  • Being part of transparent two-way communication
  • Building a trusting environment

Staff members may or may not appreciate the survey. It depends. If there’s an annual survey but then no one ever hears about the results, then much of the value is gone. The board and management may be getting some great insights, but that’s one-sided value. There’s much more value if everyone hears about what the results are and, most importantly what action is happening as a result of information in the survey. (No this is not a knee jerk reaction to say that if the staff complains about stuff in the survey they automatically get what they want.) It does mean that, at an absolute bare minimum, the staff needs to know by clear communication and acknowledgement, that they have been heard by the board and senior management. And when the staff sees something, any kind of action, that comes as a result of the survey, it signals that the leadership is paying attention to some details. (You’d be surprised at how often this doesn’t happen.)

Real Scenario I’ve seen – We finally got around to the staff survey. We fully intended to share the results with everyone and to talk about the results. Then we got the results and they were really yucky. Someone then decided that we could no longer share them. They got buried.

Value to the Board and Sr. Management

  • Insights into the culture of the organization, good, mediocre and bad
  • Feedback that the board uses for their oversight of the CEO – among many other feedback options

Board Usage of the Survey Results

In general, I see the staff survey used by boards of directors as part of the governance feedback mechanism. That’s a great thing. Boards that have a wide range of feedback tools that are regular and easy to interpret are more likely to stay at the strategic level and less likely to micromanage or spend too much time “in the weeds.” This is one of many feedback tools the board needs.

And very commonly, board members use the staff survey as a CEO oversight tool. The responses provide a temperature gauge of the climate within the organization. Are the employees content? Do they find meaning and purpose in their work? Do employees feel like they are making an impact, moving the needle towards the stated goals? Are their roles clear? Are their operational and emotional needs met? Are they gruntled or disgruntled? All of which reflects on the CEO to whom you’ve delegated operational authority.  

Warning to Board Looking at Survey Results

Given the board’s distance from the staff in general, it’s important for directors to know how to look at staff survey results. This means that board members will need to get some context to the survey. There are many factors that can affect these results that the board will need to have a handle on.

For example: A new CEO (or new Sr. management member) … will cause some vibrations. This could be good shake up or simply time for settling in. If you hired a new CEO to make overdue changes, you can bet the survey results are going to be affected as well. But consider carefully the timing and the context to understand how they may affect the survey results.

The board may also need to take note of homogenous results. It may be counterintuitive but “Everything’s great” survey results may need some drill-down. Yes, it’s very easy see that kind of result, smile and move on. However (comma) in some organizations, particularly small ones, no matter how anonymous the claim of the survey is, there is sometimes a serious reluctance for employees to express their concerns honestly. Individuals fear that their comments will be transparent.

Sometimes this slips out when a director has a one on one conversation with a staff member that starts out casually. This is dangerous territory and the board should tread carefully. Anecdotal evidence is not a trend. Staff members grabbing the ears of board members is not a healthy communication method. But it may just reveal that there is not a safe enough environment for people to be honest about what’s going on. Which means it may be time to start asking questions.

*Sigh* Nothing is simple, is it?

Now What?

  • Surveys are valuable.
  • The board sets the tone at the top.
  • Consider results carefully.
  • Communicate widely and through the appropriate channels.
  • Make sure people feel heard.
  • Take heart when people tell the whole, ugly truth. It can show that they care about what happens to the organization.
  • Be willing to listen, and really
  • Foster transparency, dialogue and culture of safely and support.
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