Why Organizational Climate Surveys May Do More Harm Than Good — Part 3: The Second Myth

Photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

In part two of this series, we looked at the first myth I’ve identified regarding climate surveys, which is that they provide an objective view of reality. Now, even having accepted that surveys are subject to numerous biases, one might still be tempted to conclude that they are useful in guiding the course of an organization. Let’s examine the assumptions underlying that conclusion and what is more likely to result instead.

Myth 2: Surveys Provide a Direction To Pursue

False assumptions underlying the myth:

  • Holistic reality is obtained through responses to the surveys (see myth one)
  • Questions can be sufficiently comprehensive and produce an integrated cohesive picture
  • Organizational issues can be dealt with separately from marketplace issues

Unintended-Effects — What is more likely to result:

  • Surveys overlook the dynamics and evolving relationships in the infrastructure which results in focusing on partial, maybe less leveragable, hazards and opportunities
  • Personality and ego override consideration of greater questions, leaving the organization focused on internal dynamics, without the context of the external world which is impacting the organization;
  • “Prescriptive direction setting” as a result of insufficient understanding of what is behind responses to the survey.

Dealing With Dynamics

A survey does not lend itself to the dynamics present in the real world or the relationships that must be considered. It is not possible to apprehend reality when what we view is only a snapshot in time with views from people separated from one another in the organization, as they respond to questions. It is also most always the case that the thinking of the respondent does not include the larger whole systems and stakeholders to the company or its products, and the dynamics of these relationships.

DuPont managers found surveys produce static pictures that were not sufficient to the new demands, saying that, “The old rule was for us to achieve optimum variance management — we wanted to have an absolutely steady state; no errors, no problems. Well that doesn’t seem to be good enough any more. We’ve got techniques up the kazoo to work on that and our people are very well trained and very good at their jobs. But that wasn’t enough. We said we need to add something to that. One of the things we need to do is to create ‘open systems’. By open systems we mean entities that are linked to the environment in a way that they immediately understand changes in the environment and continually adapt to a continually changing environment. We need to create higher order capacities in ourselves, in order to create product offerings more appropriate to this dynamic world. So we need to both maintain a steady state and to develop the organization.”

Internal Focus with Ego and Personality as Drivers

When a survey is used, neither the questions nor answers tend to correlate the need for overall business improvements to the internal organizational or company issues and needs. Surveys rarely have a link to marketplace parameters and therefore tend to evoke responses that are personality or ego based — based on each person’s evaluation of the organization — which by its nature is not linked to the overall context. Even if marketplace questions were asked, the quality of the thinking that can be developed without a group to think with is limited and tends to have too narrow a focus — one person’s idea. This is partly because surveyors and survey responders tend to think that functions of the organization are more separate and more isolated from one another than they are in actuality.

One DuPont unit manager, points out, “there was a tendency to divide up the issues that emerge in and from the survey by determining to which department the response most relates. As a result of the recommendations that emerged, we had so many initiatives and teams going that we could hardly do our jobs and the work on them was fragmented, unintegrated and redundant. Now we work off a core strategy, one in which everyone is focused on integrated strategic directives that tie each person to the success of the whole. Egos seem to be handled naturally within this context, as does overload.” One example of this was the removal of all comparisons of any part of the company to any other part. “Now all reporting is based on what are thought of as ‘integrative measures’ for which each person is held accountable — such as the customer’s margin improvement.”

When ask what percentage of your time do you spend on leading your organization into the future and what percentage solving problems to recover from yesterday’s actions, the answer is not surprising. Most organizations spend 90–95% of their improvement efforts focusing on managing disorder and trying to return things back to the starting point. “We use disciplinary reviews to prod employees to return to procedures and policy compliance, problem solving to return products to standards, and review teams to coerce compliance with regulations. We have no time left to work on the needs of the future. Surveys gave us more of this ‘disorder management’ work to do, because the questions and our natural thinking tends to look at what we can see, not what we can’t yet see (i.e. the future),” a mid-level manager offers.

A survey tends to focus the leadership, and the operations on the good news or bad news about what we are and what we are doing — not what we could be or could do. Even when asked about the future and what the organization could do differently, the answers, without deliberative interaction process, will be drawn from what people see as the current short-comings of the organization. “Entropy, that which is running down and needs problem solving, is very seductive. We reward people who are very good at addressing it and it is very addictive to work on, but it is not the stuff that creates excellent companies,” offers a DuPont Business Manager.

Prescriptive Direction Setting

Since the answers are anonymous and confidential, the participants in the survey do not develop the question, analyze the findings, or develop recommendations. A separate group, usually some part of management, is formed to follow up. The interpretation goes through not only the surveyor’s mind, but later through the mind of the task force or managers that follow up on the survey. “People were frequently totally surprised by what changes were initiated after surveys, and with what determination and conviction the implementation proceeded. It did not really feel any different than the experience of not having been surveyed in terms of the ‘prescriptive’ nature of the decisions. I do not miss surveys, and besides, I feel I am in charge of my own destiny now and can contribute to the company’s destiny,” reports one mechanic who says he returned survey forms on four occasions.

A Dynamic and Systemic Direction: Working from a Developmental Paradigm

  • Externally focused stakeholder valued parameters that enable independent direction setting in the process of working toward new opportunities
  • Teams that have continuity between internal and external business dynamics and between short and long term view.
  • Highly developed capability to understand the whole context of the business, with accountability to be continuously regenerative thus subordinating ego needs.

Creating a Better Future for our Stakeholders

DuPont managers report that working from stakeholders’ needs as a source of direction evokes creativity in everyone. Their business’ bottom line supports the appropriateness of this choice. Surveys are not the appropriate mechanism for determining stakeholder needs. That must done organically through an interactive discovery process as team members engage daily, mentally and actually, with the world outside their doors.

A DuPont site manager explains, “Until we redesigned what we called work, we were eaten up everyday by alligators. We now put effort into looking at the opportunities we could pursue. We no longer stay stuck in managing what needs to be put ‘back on track’. Now a part of every person’s job has built into it the time and direction to bring everything to a higher state than its original design. So, for example, no mechanic works on a machine simply to bring it back to an efficient working state. The question the mechanic is asking is, ‘What will be required of this machine, based on the new pursuits the market teams are undertaking?’ — and they can know the answer first hand because they are connected to the direction-setting decisions.”

Teams Who Link Internal & External, and Long and Short Term Dynamics

The Dupont Site Manager continues, “We have teams that are established long-term — not issue focused task forces — that focus on the world of our stakeholders. That is the world outside our insulated walls, in which there is a need for continuously improving our effectiveness in relation to our customers, shareholders, society, and the earth. For example, we learned about a Procter & Gamble team that had focused on evolving their raw materials for many years. They were concerned about improving the effectiveness of raw materials for all stakeholders. As a result they have created all of the product substitutions made in the industry, frequently replaced existing products completely, and are consistently ahead of regulation requiring changes in manufacturing and innovation prior to any expression of customer’s need.”

“We now have several teaming operations whose focuses are relevant to our businesses and stakeholders. This promotes a deliberative and systemic way to work, and it fosters self-reliance in people who improve the business. Everyone is a part of a team: operators, supervisors, and so on. They are also in an on-going personal and professional development process in which they work on improving the work and themselves in relation to the dynamics of the business.”

Develop Capability to Understand the Whole Context

A DuPont organizational change agent describes how this works. “To use good judgment on the spot everyday, they have to be able to think systemically about all the systems that depend on us and that we depend on for effectiveness. This means developing a kind of capability that is not typically developed in schools or work settings. What we’re trying to do is to depict the whole of a value adding process for a business, all the essential elements of the business process and how they need to be interrelated. Every person must be able to do this mentally when weighing a decision if you are going to continually develop the business, and continually discover new potential and bring it forward.”

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