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Never ask these Survey Questions Again - from Leadership IQ

Never ask these Survey Questions Again

Here is a great article from Leadership IQ. While written from the perspective of "Employee Surveys" it would apply to surveys of your clients as well.

If your organization conducts employee engagement surveys, there's something you really need to know: Never ask a question you don't know how to fix. Sounds simple, right? Well stick with me, because some of the most common engagement survey questions violate this simple rule (and one of your survey questions might be on this list).

Every survey question you ask implies a promise that you're going to take action based on the answer you get. And if you break that promise, things will get ugly. (Here's an experiment: Tonight at home, make some popcorn. Ask your spouse if they want some and when they say "yes" just ignore them. Now multiply that by a few thousand and you'll see what I'm talking about).

If you don't know exactly what actions will fix a situation, don't ask a question about it until you do. Otherwise, you're setting the stage for employees to doubt your leadership capabilities. It'll be like: "Gee, the boss asked how we felt about XYZ, we all said lousy, and then they did nothing about it…"

Now everyone will say "well of course Mark, I would never ask a question I can't fix." But some of the most common survey questions are some of the worst offenders of this rule:

I have a great friend at work
I like my boss
My boss cares about me as a person
I trust my boss

These don't seem like terrible questions, right? Well, they seem OK until you ask yourself "how would I fix a low score on one of these questions?"

Let's say you get low scores on those questions. Obviously, you now need to do something about it. Let's start with a simple question like "I trust my boss." Do you know specifically what causes the typical employees to trust the boss? How about what specifically causes your unique employees to trust the boss? And what steps have you taken to validate these issues?

It seems like it should be so simple to improve trust, but it's not. At Leadership IQ, we conducted one of the largest studies ever on what makes employees trust their boss (and here’s a major surprise: it's NOT being honest and truthful). We discovered that the biggest driver of employee trust is the extent to which leaders respond constructively to employees who bring them work-related problems. This factor ranked ten-times higher than whether or not the employees saw the boss as honest and truthful. So if your managers thought they could improve trust just by being more honest, they would be very wrong (and they would waste lots of time fixing the wrong issue).

Let me be clear on this: If you ask whether employees trust their boss, and you get a low score, you could end up wasting time and money fixing issues that employees just don’t care about. Why? Because you wouldn't know exactly what factors to fix (you might think you do, but they could easily be wrong). If you try teaching managers to be more honest, but what really creates trust for employees is responding constructively to problems, you will have completely missed this issue. It'll be just as bad as if you completely ignored what your employees said. And that will really irritate all those employees that you were supposedly trying to engage.

Instead of a vague question, try asking a question like: "If I shared my work problems with my direct boss, I know that he/she would respond constructively." Now that's a question that can be easily worked on. If you get a low score on that question, we could teach managers how to fix this in a day (and your employee engagement will skyrocket). But if you just ask vaguely about whether employees trust their boss, you could be wandering in the darkness for months.

This logic applies to every single question on your survey. Take another question like "I have a great friend at work." Low scores on this question don't teach you exactly what steps you need to take to fix the issue. Social networking MIGHT improve friendships, but so might more face-to-face time. I could show you regression analyses from companies where friendships are better when people have lots of autonomy (and are left alone). But I could also show you regression analyses from totally different companies where friendships are better when employees have lots of face-to-face teamwork and collaboration.

Think of it this way: Is a nurse in a small community hospital in Alabama likely to have the same motivational drivers as a stock trader on Wall Street or a government employee or a soldier or a Gen Y programmer in Silicon Valley?

How can you possibly know what improvement actions you’re supposed to take based on a vague question about whether people have a great friend at work? And if you don’t know exactly what actions you need to take to build better friendships, you shouldn’t ask the question. Because if you ask a question, and you don’t do anything with the answer, you’re breaking a promise to your employees. And that will really make them angry.

On Leadership IQ's employee engagement survey, every question asked includes a clear path of action. So if you discover an area you need to fix, you'll immediately know what needs to be done. We'll never ask employees if they trust their boss. However, we will ask if the boss responds constructively when presented with work-related problems. We'll never ask employees if they have a good friend at work. However, we will ask if the employee can successfully deliver constructive feedback to their coworkers.

So let's stop asking vague questions like…

I have a great friend at work
I like my boss
My boss cares about me as a person
I trust my boss

And instead, let's start asking the kinds of questions that we ask on the Leadership IQ engagement survey…

Constructive feedback from my manager has helped me to improve my performance.
I can bring concerns about quality, service or safety to my manager and not worry about causing problems for myself.
I will have to learn new skills to achieve my assigned goals for this year.
This organization shares its success stories with its employees.
If I shared my work problems with my manager, I know that he/she would respond constructively.

To judge how effective your current employee survey really is, take a good look at every question on the survey, and ask yourself, "Do I know exactly what actions will fix this issue?" It's not good enough to be able to guess what might work; you have to know with complete certainty what you will do. If you don't have a definitive answer, the survey question could cause you real trouble and needs to be dropped.


I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you'd like to learn more about our engagement survey, just contact me ( We'll schedule a quick call and I can answer whatever questions you have. There's also an entire chapter devoted to our cutting-edge survey techniques in our latest bestselling book "Hundred Percenters."

Mark Murphy
Leadership IQ
Assistant: Joyce Wilson ( or 800-814-7859)

Mark Murphy is CEO of Leadership IQ, a top-rated leadership development and employee survey firm. Mark Murphy is the author of the international management bestseller "Hundred Percenters." Leadership IQ's clients include the Harvard Business School, Merck, MasterCard, Volkswagen, and Microsoft, and our survey research has appeared in Fortune, Forbes, BusinessWeek and more.

From SUE: I really enjoy getting the Leadership IQ emails... they are chock full of great business advice. To get on the MAILING LIST... CLICK here.

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