Getting buy-in for the staff survey

Piers Bishop · March 14, 2016

Millions spent, to what purpose?

According to SurveyGizmo a typical employee survey might get about 35% response rate. InSync suggest that a really well-designed staff survey could get a 60% response, though some might just make 5%. So why is it so hard getting buy-in for the staff survey?

Even when it goes well, like the 2014 Civil Service survey which managed 60%, how do you know what the other 40% are thinking? And which 60% are they anyway? By definition it is hard to know, because you can’t reach the people who don’t complete – but it’s a pretty safe bet that most of the completers are the more engaged employees, so you get the best response from the people you don’t need to know about quite so urgently…

The average WeThrive completion rate is currently 93%.

That might seem surprising – certainly very different from the norms, but it is easy enough to understand why it happens once you look at why people use WeThrive, how they use it and what they do with the results. First, a quick summary of the main reasons people don’t bother filling in a conventional staff survey:

Inadequate communication

People generally do things because they feel it will be in their interests to do them. Unless you can make a good case for everyone to take part – both at the individual staff level and among the line managers who will be involved in the administration and fall-out from the survey, you are more likely to have responses only from those staff who are more engaged and/or have more time to spare. It’s the others you really need to hear from.

The weight of history

Staff become fatigued by too many surveys, of course, so timing is an important consideration. But they also lose interest unless they know from experience that something will come out of the efforts they put in. If there’s no immediate feedback, especially for younger staff, and the overall impression is that nothing changes, you would be better off not troubling them with the survey in the first place.

Role modelling

If the leadership are publicly involved in the exercise you can expect more of the junior staff to join in. Otherwise it’s another thing that ‘they’ have dumped on ‘us’, and those with a naturally strong oppositional response will dig in and ignore the whole exercise, or may even seek to sabotage it. Conversely, if you can identify good role models among junior staff who will act as sponsors within their groups, participation may improve.

Do staff trust the exercise

All too often the staff engagement survey is sent out but little or nothing then happens, or what does happen is not visible. Staff may also wonder why the exercise is being done anyway – an ‘engagement’ survey conducted for the purpose of investor relations is not an engaging prospect for the team.


As we will see, this is a red herring – and any organisation where staff fear their survey responses will be used in the wrong way has much bigger problems than engagement levels!

The way ahead

There is a simple way to get really good response rates, high staff buy-in to the aims of the exercise and the improvement work that follows. It turns out – surprise surprise – that staff will happily fill in an engagement survey or anything else if they sense that it will help meet their own needs to do so. All the better if you can make it easy to complete, and better still if the outputs from the exercise point directly to the actions needed to make working life better.

WeThrive users start from this perspective: human beings naturally want to get together in small groups to solve problems and make life better. It’s what we have been doing naturally since the beginning of our species and, it’s what drives the voluntary activities we do at weekends, and the best hope for any business that wants to improve engagement and motivation is to tap into this innate mechanism of ours and make it possible for it to work at work.

It turns out that if you offer staff that possibility they really don’t mind filling in the survey, and they are happy to know that their individual responses are going to be used to help them have a better experience of work. It also helps create a new contract between the company and the staff; one based around an open exchange of information focussed on improving the way  needs are met on both sides, freeing people to work at their best and get the internal rewards that come from that.

How do we know that? Well, for one thing our users find on average that around 93% of staff complete the WeThrive survey. In return management take on the responsibility of addressing the issues that emerge straight away – but when that is the key to improved motivation, engagement, wellbeing and retention, that’s a happy burden to take on.