Why Organizational Climate Surveys May Do More Harm Than Good — Part 2: The First Myth

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All surveying is based on good intentions, typically coming from a desire to improve an organization using ostensibly objective metrics. What is not understood is that surveys are not the most effective way to achieve these intentions, and further that surveys produce some unexpected culture and human dynamics — unintended-effects — which are not so apparent, or desirable. There are a variety of different techniques and approaches for conducting climate surveys. The majority of approaches are based on three myths that we’ll be examining in this series. Working from these myths produces “unintended-effects”, as we’ll see. Some surveyors have changed their approaches over the years and so are subject to a smaller number of the unintended-effects. However, there is one unintended-effect to which they are all subject by the very nature of a “survey”. Therefore if the desire of your organization is to be moving toward a paradigm such as those hinted at by the DuPont Senior Vice President when speaking of “self-reliant individuals”, you will want to reflect carefully on the following experiences offered by the managers and front-line people quoted later regarding the value of what might be called “deliberative group processes”.

Myth One: Surveys Provide an Objective View of Reality

False assumptions underlying the myth:

  • Generalized summaries reflect reality
  • Cross-sections of perspectives reflect the whole
  • People are more open and honest with “outsiders”

Unintended-Effects — what is more likely to result:

  • Oversimplification becomes valued over real-life complexity
  • A “compartmentalized mind” is elicited through the nature of questions and requirements of an anonymous process
  • We intensify already held attachments and perspectives

Generalizability or Oversimplification

The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) engaged in an interesting experiment that demonstrates what surveys have fostered in our nation. They concluded that opinion polls (not dissimilar to an organizational survey) have created a troubling dynamic for our democracy. Voters are expected to respond too quickly and without thought to issues of enormous complexity and then in turn expect politicians to reactively take care of the issues. We have as a nation begun, as a result of constant reporting of survey results, to expect the “right answers” to emerge from such snap judgments which repeatedly prove to be too simple when exposed to discussion. We have come to see this as a way to find “the truth”.

The PBS experiment created a forum whereby people could be more deliberative in their thinking. It demonstrated what differences in opinions emerge when people are in a deliberative process, rather than responding only instantaneously. The participants even reported a significantly improved sense of personal responsibility for the concerns they expressed. “Just like the multiple-choice tests you had to take in school that had forced choices, a comprehensive and thoughtful answer cannot be limited to such divisions. We try to avoid thinking this way because it actually fosters an oversimplified view of reality,” reports the DuPont “culture change manager”.

People’s reality before deliberation is not the same as their reality after deliberation, so what is it we are really after? It is important to differentiate between the sampling techniques that are used for market analysis for consumer products that hold up fairly well and the development of ideas and solutions for complex dynamics. “We can visualize a more dynamic and complete view of our organization by actually working to increase the amount and nature of complexity which people are asked to deal with everyday and to use in their decision-making. The survey responses were no match for the quality of thinking that is produced in an organization that is developing the capacity of people to work with complexity and dynamics — which is more the way the real world works anyway,” argues the Senior Vice President from DuPont. “We rely on people to consider the dynamics that exist in the marketplace and to behave purposefully in regard to them.”

Cross-Sections or Compartmentalizing

“Well there is reality and then there is REALITY”, says one Marketing manager from a DuPont sector. “You really want everyone in your organization to be able to see the working of the organization from their own part of the value-adding process, but also from the reality in which the company is relating to its customers and competitors, as well as from the changing dynamics that say what the future is requiring us to prepare ourselves for now. Surveys, by their nature do not connect people with the whole and the relationships we need to consider — so we said ‘why do surveys of partial reality?’ We then found a better way to go after it.” Surveys came out of the cultures that compartmentalized thinking which can be seen in the nature of the process in which you think about one question at a time, about one element of the issues, and usually is conceived of from only an internal view of the company with no ties to the marketplace and other stakeholders.

Open and Honest or Increasingly Habituated to Our Own Thoughts

Psychological research (American Psychological Association) has given another very good reason for avoiding such surveys in terms of their “reality producing qualities”. It turns out that when we receive input in the form of a statement or a question, the brain goes to work automatically to find a familiar pathway with which it can connect with the subject matter. Even with new ideas the person does not, without a very unique intervention, form a new connection or see something in a new way. Instead it automatically goes to an already known routing based on past experience, not one necessary related to current circumstances. The unconscious mind actually taints our perceptions and moves any new input or observed change into our familiar judgment patterns. Every time the same or similar subject matter is introduced, the mind goes through the same routing and finds the same response. This is one of the reasons changing people’s minds is difficult — but not impossible, as you will see.

Even more important, every time that route in the brain is traveled, it becomes more deeply imprinted, in the same way as a rut in the road becomes deeper as each tire rolls though it. Surveys in which people respond to what “they think” invite their minds to become less flexible and less able to make new connections. An operator in a DuPont system acknowledges his own discovery over the last few years. “We see what we believe, not the other way around. After changing my way of working I realized I had been reinforcing my own limited views by constantly accepting my first thought about something as ‘the way it was’. Our current processes have made me more demanding of others and myself about what we say is ‘true’. It has improved my mental flexibility as a result. It shows up at home also.” This can only be achieved with deliberative thinking processes evoked through group interaction.

A Comprehensive View of Reality: Working from a Developmental Paradigm

  • Develop reflective and deliberative thinking across the whole
  • Work from the perspective of larger wholes as the foundation
  • Disrupt mechanical thinking by the process used to view the work

Disrupt Mechanicalness and Develop Deliberative Thinking

“After we understood more about how changing our thinking works, we began to focus on processes that involved people in efforts to disrupt the normal (e.g. mechanical) processing of concerns — this takes some explaining — and got everyone working in ways less likely to trigger preformed thoughts emerging. For example, when people can reflect upon and analyze what is going on in their minds, they generate the will to change themselves. So we reflect a lot as teams — everyone together — on how our thinking is causing us to behave in particular ways with predictable outcomes on our products and markets. Reflection works well once people are connected with meaningful work, through which this intentionality can be engaged and fostered.” This from a Weyerhaeuser General Manager, who says repeatedly that the social and thinking side of life at work are too often ignored in the attempt to bring about change. “Corporations tend to be in too big a hurry to take the time to work with human nature and the complexity that exists in our businesses. So we keep trying out different programs, each one taking more energy and gaining less return for the effort; and people take us less seriously each time.”

The whole of human nature includes a higher self that wants to make a contribution and to be a part of something meaningful. This requires a capability to be reflective and to be deliberative in our thinking, least we fall into the trap of having the “automatic mind” lead our lives and guide our work. The reality that is reported by the “automatic mind” is a narrow and limited view. A published summary, from a survey of limited perspectives developed without deliberative interaction, does not constitute objective reality, does nothing to enable new thought or perspective, and worse tends to block the emergence of new thought.

Perspective of Larger Whole

We try to avoid any programs or initiatives that are not clearly and directly linked to improving the effectiveness of our value-adding processes from Earth to Earth — e.g. Raw Materials through to Recycle. We want a whole picture of this cycle in every one’s mind along with a clear understanding of how they fit individually and how they contribute. For example, if you know what it takes to make a customer effective, you can visualize, with a little effort, in what parts of our manufacturing or service process that is happening or not happening. Every action you take in the processes leading to that customer is increasing or reducing the customer’s effectiveness. It’s not really that hard to see. But too many organizations focus on smaller compartments of the operations and do not look at it in this whole way. The people in the organization will do the right thing, when the mental capacity to visualize the whole is developed.

Comprehensive Reality Process

The sectors of DuPont cited here have designed as part of their way of working a similar deliberation process to that of PBS, but one more internalized in daily life. As in the PBS example, it requires an interactive process with others. Deliberation for DuPont is a process of coming to see all sides of a subject as is common to say a discussion. But in a deliberation process, it also includes understanding all dimensions of a subject and the relationship among and between different dynamics. The nature of energy required to achieve this integration is virtually impossible to achieve working independently.

Deliberation for them also includes the holding of an aim to achieve a particular set of results for a set of stakeholders, such as customers, shareholders, communities and the environment. Without this aim in mind as the interaction proceeds that is nothing to give the dialogue direction and purpose. Again the dynamics of a dedicated group process is imperative to such an achievement. Finally, they believe that without the development of the person to be able to see how their own way of thinking is influencing what they can conceive of and consider as valid, they cannot really “wrestle with” the complexity that is necessary to produce high quality thinking.

Sr Fellow Social Innovation, Babson | Best Selling/Multi-Award Winning Author | Regenerative Paradigm Educator

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