To survey or not? (part 2)


To survey or not? (part 2)

30 Dec ’19 Leadership 0

In part 1 of “To Survey or not”, Bruce Greig, (entrepreneur and school governor), and I presented the case of whole school surveys with Tony Sheppard offering his expert opinion of Data Protection. It was a broad overview of the insight and value of surveys as well as a cautionary note of the implied communication when surveying?

…surveying has the potential to do more harm than good.

Part 1

Understanding that your organisation is trustful and ‘ready,’ Bruce and I discussion the relatives benefits and opportunities of ‘Open’ or ‘Confidential’ or ‘Anonymous’ surveys? Not forgetting, the options the decision to not survey at this time and not forgetting that this is also a communication. This is just one question pertaining to the practicalities or ‘how-to’ of surveying.

In addition to Greg, with trusted colleagues @DavidErogers, @McShaneChris, @academictrust and our former office manager, one key ‘how-to’ surveying question we heavily debated and wrestled with. Surveys sit on a continuum, from anonymous to open, though I would now also note the place of one approach, confidential surveys. Each approach communicating a different message that will influence responses, under varying degrees of trustfulness in the organisation.

If you regularly read posts like this one, you will be familiar with the convincing argument that to get the most [honesty] from your staff  surveys, it’s vital you protect your employees rights to privacy. The key assumption being that in order to collect “honest and open feedback,” staff must know that they can share feedback in a confidential way that prevents leaders or stakeholders from tying that feedback directly to them.

Here is the rub – my gut tells me that there’s something fundamentally wrong if your employees are fearful / worried / of being open when providing feedback? I would argue that the idea of anonymity is outdated and ultimately unproductive, interfering with the responsibility and trust (not accountability) you’re looking to build establish / build / deepen in your school as well as leading to a myriad of other unintended consequences and inferences once the responses are collected. And yet, with respect to my trusted colleagues, that was not an opinion shared by all.

This brings up full circle – back to the core question of Part 1.

What are you communicating when you offer staff the opportunity (or not) to feedback via an open surveys, confidential surveys or anonymous surveys? What are staff hearing when you offer them the opportunity (or not) to feedback openly, confidentially or anonymously? Again, we would advise any school leader to make your decisions with forethought. Here are a handful of pros and cons at the extremities for you to consider.

You are anticipating honesty and openness resulting from a reduction in accountability. Unidentified feedback, there’s no way to understand the context of the issues.

You may get a moment of brilliance, though no-way to dig deeper. On the other hand, you miss the chance to have a productive conversation to identify solutions.

It is almost always impossible to know, who is still to respond. Remembering that no responses – is a communication.

How anonymous is anonymous anyway? 

If your organisation is ‘ready,’ Bruce and I would sway towards open surveys, with carefully constructed questions. One important step being to outline to staff/students/parents what professional or constructive contributions look like and read like. (Of course, first time through, you will need to borrow examples from other school leaders / surveys.)

Additional points carried over from Part 1 that are influenced by the Open-Confidential continuum.

The more open the survey, the more time required. So respect respondents with the time to complete the survey. Schedule the time. What can you cancel to allow this the survey to be completed? Schedule the time to feedback too.

Make gathering feedback a common occurrence – so that it becomes part of ‘what we do.’

Where you encourage and promote informed decent – prepare ahead to how you will respond to constructive criticism.

Look for ways to demonstrate how you’re using feedback to implement positive changes. Reinforcing that it’s safe, commendable, to be constructive. 

Bersin and Associates found that

Companies that scored in the top 20% for building a “recognition-rich culture” actually had 31% lower voluntary turnover rates.

Use your survey to capture your staff top three recommendations. Use the survey to promote opportunities to recognise staff. A question that enable staff to recognise other staff, to showcase unseen or unrewarded work, can be very powerful (this from 2015). Again, a note of caution. Recognising and acknowledging the discretionary effort needs careful planning and forethought. Recognise staff based on “specific results and behaviours,” and second, give forethought to the recipient (and those not being recognised too).

On removing anonymity

Removing anonymity allows your staff to become active contributors in the decision-making process, which may lead to a deeper connection and  dedication to your school, it certainly allows you to go deeper into the responses, expanding upon ideas, gather continual feedback, and arrive at productive solutions to improve the outlook for everyone. A rising tide lifts all ships.

Keep in mind that an anonymous survey can reveal uncomfortable criticism and how you approach that is important. Responding (or recognising) is then more challenging, as your lines of enquire are limited. That said, when feedback is constructive, be that much more prepared to act. In 2011 research published in the Journal of Business Ethics, found that employees who felt listened to, were better team players and provided input more frequently.

Which reminded me of this pithy statement.

Leaders that don’t want to listen will soon be surrounded by people with little to say.

Part 3 will offer Bruce’s perspective and experienced from his work over at


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