Survey Feedback – A powerful and often misunderstood tool

A colleague in the Nuclear Industry wrote me recently seeking advice on how to promote “Human Performance Awareness” in a group of power plants.  While much has been written within the Nuclear Industry on how to define “Human Performance” (for example INPO, the Institute for Nuclear Power Operators, has some excellent materials for how to think systemically when doing root cause analysis of human performance related events), how to implement the desired behaviors remains elusive.  The following discussion focuses on a powerful yet misunderstood tool for creating the open culture necessary for discussing and improving performance: surveys and survey feedback.


A survey of 600 companies conducted by my father, Robert Crosby, and his associates in the early 1980s indicated that “30% of boss-employee work relationships were so sour that they needed to be addressed if meaningful, effective work was to follow” (Robert Crosby, The Authentic Leader, 1998).  Without the ability of management at all levels to hear employee concerns (even if those concerns are conveyed in a less than professional manner) without becoming defensive and combative, no error prevention program (or nuclear safety culture) can fully succeed.  Survey feedback, when properly managed, is one of the fastest routes to reinforcing the desired behaviors at an organizational scale.


The nuts and bolts of survey feedback are as follows:


1.  Let the people who filled out the survey interpret their own data.  This may seem radical, but it’s actually a return to the methods of Rensis Likert, Ron Lippitt, and other pioneers of survey work.  They knew that no one, no matter their expertise, can provide as accurate an interpretation of their own data as the people who were surveyed.  Equally important, by identifying problems (and strengths!) via data, survey feedback helps break the ice on discussing difficult issues. 


2.  Use the process to address and strengthen supervisor and employee relations at all levels.  Effective hierarchical relationships (boss and employees) are critical to achieving production, quality, and safety goals.    Problem solving, whether focused on the hierarchical relationship itself, or on tasks, must include face to face dialogue.  Attempts to deal with these relationships while simultaneously avoiding them (such as with anonymous feedback) are more likely to hurt strained relations than to help.


3.  Start at the top and “cascade.”  Survey feedback, like many activities, is easiest to lead if the leadership starts with themselves, and then moves the activity downwards into the organization.   This lends credibility to the process, and allows each layer to participate before facing the potentially difficult task of survey feedback dialogue with their own direct reports.   


“We know what does not work.  It does not work to survey people and not show them the results.  It also does not work to survey people and have top management or an outside expert develop recommendations (prescriptions).  It does not work to survey people and have a general session and report the results to all concerned and do nothing else.  These approaches all have been tried hundreds of times and, with rare exception, been found wanting.  People become irritable and defensive, with a resulting lowered morale and decreased work efficiency.”

Robert Crosby, Walking the Empowerment Tightrope


3.  Provide skilled facilitation.  You can’t expect teams with strained boss-employee work relationships to improve those relationships without skilled help.  In a nutshell, these teams need to move from generalizations based (often loosely) on past behavior (“you can’t trust him!”) to reciprocal agreements (i.e., the boss and the employees take responsibility and/or commit to doing things differently) about future behavior.  Even groups with strong work relations benefit from periodic facilitation (all groups and organizations have blind spots).  A cadre of the organization’s own people can be trained to provide some, and eventually most, of this service.


4.  Survey both task and relationship factors.  As long as you cover both, and follow a feedback process similar to that outlined here, what survey you use becomes a less important variable.  CKM works with surveys ranging from 160 computer tabulated questions to a survey of 10 questions written on a flipchart.  While choosing the right tool is important, it’s the process that yields the results.


5.  Facilitate Specific Action.  The focus of the sessions, especially when there’s strained relations, has to be on future actions/commitments, not on debating the past.


6.  Structure Follow-Through.  All groups should meet in some manner (staff meetings, tool box sessions, etc.) to assess progress, discuss and clear up new misunderstandings, develop new actions, and so on.  Many groups will need skilled facilitation during follow-through.


With an annual survey, the process of administration and continuous improvement becomes important (see graph).  Unfortunately, this is where most organizations put all their focus.  The process with the most potential, survey feedback where supervisors and their crews work with their own data, is rare.


In sum, while the quality of facilitation is a key variable, the use of data to promote and focus dialogue is a basic strategy that can be applied in many ways.


“They who put their pencil to the survey paper should

also see and work the data.”                                

 Dr. Ronald Lippitt* (from a private conversation with

John Scherer and Robert Crosby)

*One of the early pioneers of Organizational Development

“There is no more effective way than survey feedback (turning data into action) to involve people quickly at the key points of data gathering, problem solving, solution recommending, action, and follow-through.”

Robert Crosby (Walking the Empowerment Tightrope, 1992, )

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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