Surveys are One Part of Your Listening Strategy. Are You Over Relying on Them?

Madison Hanscom, Ph.D., Senior Consultant and Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorStrategic ListeningLeave a Comment


As organizations become more adept at using surveys to gather employee input, there can be a tendency to use surveying as a default – even when it may not be the best method for accomplishing your goal.

Survey tools can give everyone the opportunity to share their opinions confidentially, track progress over time, understand the relationship between variables, start conversations, compare against benchmarks, and set goals. However, over-reliance on surveys can cause issues such as excessive survey length, survey fatigue, frustration with lack of follow-up, or missing out on the richness of in-person interactions.

The purpose of this article is to help you think through when to leverage a survey and when another method could be more effective.

Employee Listening Methods

We often find it helpful to compare formal listening methods with informal approaches. Formal methods typically involve an organization-sponsored survey or feedback collection tool, whereas informal methods tend to be used at the local level.

At Newmeasures, we categorize surveys into five major categories: Employee Engagement, Pulse, Lifecycle, Topic-Driven, and Always-On.  

Focus groups, interviews, informal conversations, check-ins, roundtables during staff meetings, town hall meetings, feedback workshops, anonymous comment boxes, and open-door policies are all examples of non-survey listening methods.

Ultimately the method you select should depend on what you are trying to accomplish and how the data will be used.

Choosing a Listening Method

Define Your Objective

Before you jump into designing a survey, take a moment to clearly define your objective. Put another way, what is the reason for listening? Examples of reasons might include: 

  • Identify the root cause of a problem
  • Understand the impact of a change
  • Work through a conflict
  • Communicate a value or priority
  • Understand progress over time
  • Ensure everyone has a chance to be heard
  • Provide a safe space for employees to share their honest opinion
  • Have an easy way to tally feedback

Having a clear objective allows you to choose the optimal listening method. Wanting to give everyone a voice or understand progress over time lends itself very nicely to a quantitative survey, while working through a conflict may be better addressed via a live conversation that allows for active listening and co-creating solutions.

For example, let’s say you are a manager hearing how employees are frustrated with a new policy change and you want to understand if this is just the opinion of a few loud voices or if it is truly how most employees feel. A survey may be a great vehicle to answer this question. In another scenario, let’s say department A is frustrated with the communication from department B. While you could do a survey, a live conversation with players from each department is more likely to lead to deeper understanding, build connection, and help address the root cause of the frustration.

Sometimes a blend is the right approach. In some scenarios it is necessary to strike this balance by first starting with a survey to understand the problem, followed by digging deeper using qualitative methods to inform the solution building process.

Consider Confidentiality & Psychological Safety

There are always employees who do not feel comfortable speaking up in a group environment. One benefit of using surveys is they can create a safe space for employees to share their honest thoughts and opinions, without concern for the repercussions of sharing difficult feedback. Of course, this is not to say that surveys should be used to avoid difficult conversations, but they can be a great vehicle for generating understanding when other methods may be more complicated or vulnerable.

Work Backwards

A survey should not be done unless there is a clear plan for how the data will be used. Nothing is more frustrating than taking time to share your opinion and never hearing what happened with it! 

Before you decide to embark on a survey, be clear about who will analyze and/or review the data, what will happen with the learnings, and how results will be shared and to what audience. In addition, ask yourself if your organization is willing and able to take action on this survey and who will be responsible for the follow-up. If the answer is that no one wants to own it, or there is no plan for who will use the feedback, that’s probably a sign to spend more time developing a plan. Be sure to communicate to employees ahead of time so they understand what to expect after providing their input.

Seek to Strike a Balance

Let’s face it, sometimes live conversations are difficult and tricky to navigate, but relying on a survey to do the heavy lifting is not always the most effective method of listening. While surveys are an integral part of any successful listening strategy, striking the right balance is key. At Newmeasures, we like to say:

Surveys shouldn’t replace conversations – they should start conversations
 To learn more, check out our free video series on strategic employee listening.




Madison uses her experience in organizational science to diagnose problems and build solutions. With years of experience in applied research, Madison leverages her knowledge in research methods, design, and statistics to develop and administer assessments. She enjoys translating data for practical use and partnering with clients to create better workplaces.


Madison Hanscom, Ph.D. Senior Consultant 



Leanne has helped organizations and executive teams develop employee listening strategies for the last 20 years. She is passionate about cultivating deep human connections and unlocking each employee's potential. 


Leanne Buehler, Ph.D. Principal Science and Innovation Advisor