ADI regularly incorporates perception surveys into our work. Surveys are cost-effective and have several applications such as assessing organizational culture, doing a pulse check on the reliability of critical behaviors, or gathering upward or 360o feedback for individual leaders. When discussing survey options with our clients, they often tell us they have survey fatigue. While not a technical term, survey fatigue refers to low participation levels during survey administration, presumably because of asking a site or organization to participate in one survey after another (e.g., focused on engagement, safety). Not surprisingly, as subsequent surveys are introduced the participation level may drop lower and lower to the point where information gathered isn’t helpful and may not be representative of an entire site.

The participation level is a piece of data that, by itself, means something. We and our clients want to know why the participation level is what it is, whether high or low. Participation may decrease for reasons other than the number of surveys recently given, such as how (or whether) leaders have responded to survey results in the past. In large part, I would suggest that leaders can positively (or negatively) impact participation, thereby optimizing a survey’s use as a feedback tool.

So why would a client have trouble getting people to participate in a survey, ruling out logistical complications (e.g., lack of computer terminals for e-surveys)? What is needed from potential responders is simply the behavior of completing either a paper or an e-survey via a computer or other device. What we know about any behavior is that if we want it to continue over time, then that behavior needs to connect to positive reinforcement. If a behavior occurs and is not reinforced over time, it will decrease and eventually cease, a phenomenon known as extinction. So, what consequences would reinforce or strengthen the behavior of completing a survey? In other words, what’s the payoff for the feedback giver?

When taking the time to give feedback, potential reinforcers for the giver include these actions by leaders:

  • Circling back quickly to acknowledge those who participated, even when participation is anonymous (e.g., group feedback about the percentage of people who have responded to date)
  • Sharing the results of the survey soon after the results are received
  • Including frontline employees in developing solutions or action items based on the feedback
  • Sharing what they are committing to do in response to the feedback
  • Regularly communicating status updates on identified action items
  • Soliciting input from relevant stakeholders at different levels about the acceptability and impact of implemented solutions

When people take the time to give feedback, they want to know feedback recipients (e.g., leaders, the organization) are hearing what they’re saying, taking the feedback seriously, and that the feedback is leading to substantive and visible changes that improve the situation for feedback givers.

Following survey completion and data analysis, we work with clients on these post-survey steps to ensure that feedback leads to organizational improvements and to build in positive reinforcement for feedback givers’ behavior of completing the survey. I am always surprised by how often leaders report they have not shared feedback from prior surveys with frontline employees or even frontline supervisors. And if action was taken based on the feedback, rarely was it communicated or obvious to feedback givers. Under these conditions, it’s not surprising to see the behavior of offering feedback decrease over time. When leaders develop a plan for building in reinforcement following a survey, they are combatting survey fatigue and increasing the likelihood that stakeholders at all levels will continue to offer valuable feedback needed for organizational improvement. When feedback results in the opportunity to have input into changes that benefit the feedback giver, why would anyone want to stop speaking up?

Posted by Bart Sevin, Ph.D.

Specializing in performance and systems analysis and the development of behavior-based implementation strategies, Bart Sevin helps clients create long-term organizational change.  As a highly trained and experienced Board Certified Behavior Analyst, Bart helps organizations examine systems, processes, and people strategies to ensure that their motivational initiatives are aligned to promote business success and drive their desired outcomes.