From our CEO: People don't get survey fatigue, they get lack of action fatigue

You know that feeling you get when yet another email lands in your inbox that says, ‘We care what you think,’ and you’re pretty darn sure they don’t care at all? Well, that’s the last thing you want your people feeling when you survey them about their engagement with your organization.

The natural response if your people aren’t engaging with your surveys is to think you’re asking them too often - they have survey fatigue, they’re sick of filling them out. But you’re probably wrong.

The most typical reason people don’t want to fill out your survey is because you haven’t done anything since the last one. They don’t have survey fatigue; they have lack-of-action fatigue.

Is your survey really a tool for change?

The first or second time they are asked for their opinion, most people are happy and motivated to share it. If we look at our data, the majority of people on the first or second survey respond with something along the lines of “We’re so happy that the organisation is canvassing our opinion, this is something that could be really good for the company.”

Then they get asked to fill in another survey a week later… a month later… a year later… How they feel about that next survey depends very much on what followed the first couple of times. If the survey brought about changes or communication, people will be much more inclined to welcome the chance to do another survey, even if the changes were not what that particular person wanted. If they can see that a change was made on the back of results of a survey, they will see the survey as a tool for change.

If nothing has changed, they will either give their opinion grudgingly, or completely ignore the survey. After all, why should they give up their valuable time to answer pointless questions?

The classic sign that something is wrong is a declining participation rate. It depends on the volume, length and frequency of surveys, but as a general rule of thumb, it takes two or three lacks of action for people to be well and truly sick of filling in surveys.  

How often is too often to survey?

There is no magic frequency that suddenly becomes ‘too often’ to survey your people. It depends on the type of survey, the type of industry, the reason you are surveying and the actions you’ve taken since the last survey.

Instead of thinking about survey frequency, it’s better to think about a feedback loop. You have to say, “What’s the loop? How do we listen, act, communicate and then listen again?” Regardless of the survey frequency, if you fail to take action and communicate results, you almost certainly guarantee lack-of-action fatigue.

For a full engagement survey, the right frequency might be once or twice a year. For faster growth companies that are doubling or tripling headcount each year, they may survey once a quarter because the company is changing so rapidly.

In between these larger surveys, it makes sense to run smaller, lightweight pulse surveys. At Culture Amp we’ve found the optimum frequency for us internally is every two weeks. The questions are not complex and give a quick insight into your organization’s ‘pulse’. Pulse surveys provide ongoing feedback about if and how the actions you take from the engagement surveys are working.

The important thing is to create these feedback loops and make them meaningful. There’s an unspoken agreement when an individual provides thoughtful feedback. They are telling you what they think, and in return you have to tell them what you are doing about it. As part of the feedback loop, you need to listen, do something and then listen again.

A three-step process

It’s a three-step process: Listen. Act. Communicate.

Even if you do listen, you do act on what you’ve heard, you can’t just assume that your people will connect the dots. One of the key things you have to do is take the time to remind people what they told you and what happened because of it. People have short memories. You have to remind people, “You told us this, this is what we’ve done. Now let’s see whether that fixes the underlying problem or if there’s another issue there.”

There is a huge spectrum of how organizations communicate results and actions to their people. The traditional way is to send around a formal email setting out the results of the survey and an action plan for next steps. That’s great, but then you need to keep going to close that feedback loop.

Closing the loop

The most important thing in improving engagement is actually closing the loop and acting on what you hear. But in many ways ‘closing the loop’ is a misnomer. Because once you have acted on what you’ve heard, you need to listen all over again. It’s a dynamic, ongoing process.

Your people don’t get survey fatigue. They get lack-of-action fatigue. But if you know how to recognize the warning signs and are willing to do something about it, you can stop it from happening.


Didier Elzinga is a People Geek and CEO/Co-Founder of Culture Amp. You can follow Didier on MediumTwitter or LinkedIn.