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Have you ever been a part of a climate survey that went nowhere, or worse, produced witch hunts within the company? Climate surveys have a cynicism that surrounds them precisely because leaders fall into pitfalls while conducting them. “Nothing will change” and “I don’t want to stick my neck out” are attitudes that sabotage climate surveys, but are unfortunately the attitudes that leaders can inadvertently foster by mishandling a climate survey.

Good leaders are well intentioned, and want the best for their organizations, but good leaders can still make honest mistakes that sabotage attempts to solicit constructive feedback from their organizations. What follows are some “don’ts” vis-à-vis climate surveys:

10 Ways to Screw up a
Climate Survey

Over-Structure the Questions – “Yes-No” questions can only get you so far. The problems that you as a leader think might be in play may be very different than the problems being felt within the organization. While some “yes/no” or “rate the issue” questions are appropriate, make sure there are also open-ended questions that allow for creative or unstructured answers. Don’t limit the type of information you are getting from your employees by framing the survey in a way that limits out-of-the-box feedback.

Include Attribution – The second pitfall that anyone conducting a climate survey should avoid is including attribution in the feedback process. All responses should be anonymous so that respondents have the security that their results will not be attributed to them. They will feel safer to give you the honest feedback you desperately need. Furthermore, make no attempts to discover the identity of any of the respondents, no matter how critical they were. The fear of retribution hinders feedback, and attribution increases the perceived (or actual) risk of retribution.

Work on the Results “Later” – Fully processing climate survey results, discussing change, executing the change, communicating that change in  association with the results-all of this  takes a lot of time and leaders are often under-resourced. It is very easy to get to the climate survey “later” and later never comes. Make no mistake, climate surveys are most often the most important priority for your attention and focus. Time the surveys well and clear your schedule so that they can get the attention they deserve.

Have the Ivory Tower do all the Analysis - An important part of reviewing the climate change is doing so from numerous perspectives. If the results are only reviewed by executives or senior managers, only one perspective will be in play. Since all levels and departments within your organization contributed to the results, all levels and departments need to participate in interpreting those results. Establish a team that represents the depth and breadth of your organization to go through and analyze the results.

Don’t Thoroughly Review the Results – Conducting a thorough review of the results is critical. Failing to do so disincentivizes employees from providing feedback in future climate surveys. Make sure time is dedicated to go over all the responses, read and pondered, not skimmed. This is the most important reading you will do all year.

Don’t Make Changes – It should go without saying that climate surveys should motivate change, but they often do not and employees become disenchanted with the feedback process. Your team should identify numerous changes that could be made throughout your organization based on the feedback. They should be prioritized, and absolutely implemented.

Try to Make the Hardest Changes First – The earnest organization may attempt to tackle the hardest, most challenging changes first. Change management is difficult, and even with the mandate of a climate survey, change can be hard to accept in organizations, even with the folks who identified the problem in the survey. Identify some low hanging fruit and execute those changes first. The organization will be able to quickly see the value of the survey and also that leadership is committed to change. The harder changes can come later with a greater sense of buy-in established from making the easier changes first.

Don’t Publicize the Results – Publishing the results displays a vulnerable kind of humility that is necessary in leaders and is respected by organizations. This communicates that you are willing to accept criticism, and that you will make public commitments to change. Publishing the results also acts as an accountability mechanism that encourages leaders to follow through with the necessary changes.

Criticize the Feedback – When reviewing the results with your organization, do not criticize any of it, even if some of the feedback was poorly thought out or irrelevant. Criticizing feedback will hamper future feedback from the organization. Take the feedback in good grace, identify the solid feedback that requires change and praise the organization for providing it.

Don’t Report on Progress (or the lack thereof) – Follow-up is critical for accountability in any endeavor. In the case of a climate survey, there is usually no mechanism for the organization to follow-up with their leaders to see if the leaders are making the changes the climate survey identified. It is incumbent on the leader to conduct that follow-up. This is best done publicly in a newsletter, social media update, or town hall session. Bottom line, let your organization know regularly what you have (or have not) accomplished with the climate survey.

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If climate surveys have been poorly handled in your organization in the past, do not be surprised if your feedback is limited in the first go around. Employees who have seen climate surveys produce poor changes or no changes will likely be unwilling to participate in future surveys. With that kind of backdrop, the first climate survey should be used as an opportunity to rebuild trust, making what positive changes are possible given the feedback at hand. Once the organization sees that leadership is  using the climate survey to make  positive change in the organization, your next survey (perhaps 6 months later) will produce much more (and effective) feedback from an organization with greater a  renewed trust in their leadership.

Climate surveys are excellent opportunities to engender trust between leadership and the company, create productive cross-talk, identify and address problems. Take the time to carefully construct a survey that elicits unstructured answers and is non-attributive in nature. Thoroughly analyze the results from a variety of perspectives, and then publish the results. Lastly, make changes and hold yourself accountable for making changes, publicly and regularly.

Michael Farr, PMP, is a Chief Master Sergeant in the U.S. Air Force and founder of He is passionate about recognition and enabling professionals to motivate their organizations through recognizing their member’s excellence. When he is not slaying dragons with his kids, he can be found at @fosterxcellence on Twitter and @fosteringexcellence on Facebook.