Survey Says…Should Leaders Care?

Survey Says

Every leader is very familiar with that paralyzing moment where a number of seemingly good options are on the table, but no one is sure what to do. Options are many, but decisions are few…

There are significant stake-holders backing different positions. How will the team decide? It is hard to imagine selecting a solution that won’t alienate at least one constituency.

So what is a leader to do?

Seeking Truth, Seeking Data

Survey DataAfter several rounds of arguing it is not unusual for someone to suggest that a survey be taken. The pitch sounds something like this: Let’s see what they (customers, colleagues, critiques) think and we’ll allow this new objective information help us decide what to do.

To say “no” to a survey makes the leader look like she/he is afraid of new information. Survey-hesitant leaders appear biased and arrogant. Is there a greater leadership sin? As a result, many leaders capitulate and under-estimate the cost.

Survey present four challenges that tend to undermine leadership confidence and erode leadership instincts. As one who has been burned a time or two – let me pay your dumb-tax.

Power Surge

Survey results carry too much power…

Survey ResultsSurvey-advocates introduce the idea by saying, “Let’s take a survey just to see where people are on this question.”

How can any leader say “no” to that? Yet, when the results are reported something shifts.

What “people think” often becomes the ultimate trump card for whatever is being discussed.  The survey results become the determining factor for the decision-making process.  To not do what the survey “says” creates the perception that the leader is out-of-touch and dogmatic.

The survey process is sold as a helpful tool in the decision-making process. But, when the results are revealed, the survey results sadly become the final arbiter on what is good and right.

This is mindless and quite unfortunate. Surveys are not the final arbiter of truth and/or reality!

Questionable Mind Share

Survey respondents are presumed to be too engaged in the process…

Disengaged Survey ParticipantWith tight schedules and the widespread advocacy of multi-tasking, surveys get lost in the mix of things people need to do. I am not suggesting people don’t take surveys seriously; rather they are not taken as seriously as the end-users hope or report.

People take surveys in passing. If they don’t understand a question, they guess and answer.

You have to survey people on things they know, for example, you can’t ask people about their satisfaction with their wireless adaptor if they don’t know what a wireless adaptor is! However, people using survey results live by what they discover.

In the midst of their own busy schedules, end-users instinctively assume survey responses represent what the people really think about a particular question/issue. They need the information to matter.

But, the reality is that the answer given on most surveys is actually an instinctive response decided in the moment by the respondent.

Those who use the information would well to remember this.

Power Failure

Surveys give away too much authority indiscriminately…

StatisticsSurveys make everyone’s opinion equal.  If “x” number of people express a certain opinion then definitive conclusions are drawn from the raw data. Meaning and intentions are derived from the aggregate numbers and every opinion carries equal weight.

I suspect these numbers are helpful in knowing some things, but they don’t say everything.

And quite frankly, in my actual everyday leadership, the opinions of certain people are more significant (and should be), because of their maturity, understanding, experience, etc.

I realize that results can be constructed in order to weigh certain opinions stronger than others (based on personal/demographic data gleaned from the respondents).  However, when results are used to evaluate what may or may not be working the bigger numbers carry most of weight.

People emphasize statistics – and sometimes even mis-report or de-emphasize certain numbers – based on predetermined hopes and preferences.We are a numbers culture, and it is hard for a leader to allow her/his instincts to trump the numbers, because the number don’t lie – right?

Power Struggle

Survey analysts are deemed too unbiased…

Are any of us unbiased about anything? Don’t we all bring our own experiences and preconceptions to every discussion? Even statistical-types have family dysfunctions and personal compulsions.

People in denial about their own prejudices actually make me more nervous that those who deal with their stuff.

Therefore, it seems wise to admit that we all have our own biases (on everything) – and then have the conversation. To not do so seems disingenuous at best and downright deceptive at worst.

Power Position

In conclusion, surveys elevate the opinion of the masses and depress the instincts of leadership. There are places where this might be valuable.  But, most effective leaders don’t operate at their best in this way.

Great leaders I have watched are masterful at asking open-ended questions.  They are great listeners.

They typically have a diverse group of colleagues/advisors whose opinions carry real weight. They are not autocratic, but they do lean into their own experiences and instincts about what is right and good.  They don’t need a survey to tell them what to do.

In fact, to take a survey would only make things more complicated.

  • This doesn’t mean they always get it right.
  • They misread things and make mistakes.
  • They also learn from their mistakes.

It’s possible that a survey would have helped them glean information they might not have had otherwise. But at what price?

At the risk of sounding alarmist, it often appears that something far more sinister is afoot.

In a day and age where everyone seems to give lip-service to the supremacy of human capital – we do a disservice to that very ideal by enslaving leaders to what the survey says. We say people are our most valuable asset. Which is true.

But, what is it about people that makes them so valuable? Isn’t it what they bring to the table as people? Isn’t it their gifting, capacity and instincts? Seems to me that if an organization is blessed with a great leader, that organization is well-served by letting that leader do what they have been gifted and called to contribute.


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Pieter K Van Waarde is the Senior Pastor at Woodcrest Chapel
He is Executive Director for Team Building Resources LLC and author of “Unsettled”
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3 responses to “Survey Says…Should Leaders Care?

  1. Sometimes (or even often), “let’s take a survey” means “we are afraid to take a decision”. A survey will take time, and don’t forget that time is money. Speed is important, a results oriented leader should think that it’s preferable to apply a good plan now, than a perfect plan tomorrow. Anyway, the plan could be improved tomorrow, but he will gain a day.


  2. I agree that survey results are not always helpful, but sometimes it isn’t because of the people taking the survey but instead because of the person who wrote the survey! If they don’t put careful thought into the questions the results won’t mean anything.


  3. I agree with these findings, one major problem is ‘who completed the survey’ – response rates can be low, they can be completed very quickly without much thought to the answers and sometimes they are biased by very recent events. Survey by al means but take care of how you view the outcomes.


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