Why you should be able to write your own employee survey questions
Chief Scientist, Culture Amp
Workplaces are changing drastically. New technology, systems and processes mean that how we work today may look very different to how we work tomorrow. Each change brings myriad new things that we need to understand about our organizations and how our people experience them.
While academic researchers have covered and validated many workplace topics, they haven’t covered everything - there’s an infinite number of nuances on any particular topic.
This is why, at Culture Amp, we don’t limit survey questions to things that have been validated by Industrial and Organizational (I/O) psychology research. There are just a few thousand I/O psychology researchers around the world who are conducting research and only a small portion of that work is specifically validating questions. This is a tiny resource when compared to the number of organizations and all the unique problems that they’re trying to solve (I’ve done some quick estimations at the bottom of this piece).
Employee feedback plays an important role in helping companies solve their own unique challenges and strategic problems. That’s why we want you to have the option to write your own survey questions. We want to understand what you need to learn about your organization.
Custom questions reflect the unique needs of your organization
There are many different ways to create your own question in a Culture Amp survey.
Some people find it easier to start by editing an existing question that has been benchmarked or curated by our people science team and tailor it to their circumstances. This lets you match the language or way you talk in your organization. Doing this can make your survey more accessible for your people.
For example, I’ve seen one company put joke questions in their survey - they’re completely nonsensical. They might ask if the CEO’s shoes were better last quarter for example. This helps them create a light moment in their survey and keeps the person taking the survey engaged in the experience.
Creating a question also has the advantage of satisfying your own curiosity. You can do your own research and form your own hypotheses rather than just rolling out the same thing every time. Perhaps you’ve read up on new theories - like Dan Pink’s When or Ray Dalio’s Principles - and you want to craft a question inspired by those ideas. There is no reason why this new question (provided it is worded well) couldn’t be the most insightful question you ask.
While it’s great to create your own questions, I do encourage you to look through the survey templates that we have as well. These questions are often validated and may come with benchmark or comparative data that can help you see how you’re performing. Mixing these questions with some of your own unique questions (we often suggest an 80:20 ratio of benchmarked to unique) can give you a great balance of external context and internal specificity.
For example, we’ve seen people ask questions about employee wellbeing and experiences outside of the workplace. These are based on the notion that people's experiences are broad and things outside of work can actually affect your work day. While these questions were once rare, we’re now seeing more of them and they’re now being validated. Your unique question might just start the next insightful trend.
Crafting the perfect question is a journey
Writing a good survey question is a journey in and of itself. Our people scientists spend a lot of time talking to people and educating them about why we’ve written questions a certain way.
When writing your question it’s important to understand what you're aiming for. Imagine that you've turned up to work and your problem has been fixed overnight. If you can describe what you see in this scenario, that informs the question you should be asking.
For example, you may think your departments aren’t talking to each other. If these silos were solved overnight you might see all the managers having a stand up together and discussing the challenges their teams were experiencing. This information can then be used to craft a question that asks whether your managers have regular meetings together. The question not only asks about the potential problem, it also suggests an action.
The questions you ask are also a great source of data. At Culture Amp, we can look at what questions people are writing to inform our understanding of common challenges people are trying to solve or understand. If something is becoming important for companies all over the world, then that’s a signal that people might need standardized measurement tools.
Nothing is more impactful than uncovering information that can make a real difference to your people. The best way to do that is to make your survey questions as relevant to your organization as possible.
Why companies can’t just rely on IO Psych research to solve problems
Although it can be difficult getting precise statistics for these types of real world things we can get some indicative statistics for the purpose of making blunt comparisons in this case; primarily because the gap is so big.
First, looking at the number of IO Psychologists in the world we can turn to the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) which is the pre-eminent professional body globally. The most recent research published on membership was in 2012 and reports 3055 fellow and members. Additionally there were 5030 associates, international affiliates and student affiliates. This gives us a grand total of 8,085 people. However, SIOP is somewhat US centric so let’s be kind and double the number and even do some rounding up to say 20,000 as a ballpark estimate. It is highly unlikely all of these people are conducting original research so if anything we are probably overstating the amount of new things the profession is able to research and test here.
Now let’s compare this to the number of companies. The number of companies in the world is also somewhat difficult to pin down but a convenient Quora post has done some of the work for us and the smallest guesstimate here is ~115 million companies. These figures imply a ratio of around one IO Psychologist for every 5,750 companies. Even if only 10% of those companies were conducting internal research we would have 575 times more research than the number of people working specifically in the field of IO Psychology.