It’s not often that your team members tell you what’s really on their minds, and what it’s truly like to work at your organization. While the best indicator of these sentiments can come from employee surveys, leaders need to know how to read between the lines, to pick up on what their team is really trying to tell them.

Employee surveys can teach us a lot about what it’s really like to work somewhere, for good and for bad. That’s because these surveys can be critical sources of information that employees may not be willing to disclose during face-to-face interactions.

So, what is your team really trying to tell you with their employee survey results? “What they said” often needs to be translated into “what they mean,” so you can diagnose issues and support organization-wide change to address needs. 

One of the biggest reasons why employee surveys can be a safe haven for honest feedback? They can offer a format where your team experiences psychological safety, which is that feeling of being able to speak up, without fear of repercussion.


Employee Surveys: More Important Than You Might Think

Most leaders understand that even despite their best efforts, honest communication with their employees comes with limitations. Even leaders with the best employee relationships will seldom hear the real truth about how everyone is feeling.

While there are ways that leaders can open up channels of communication, it’s very likely that your organization already has an untapped gold mine of information: employee surveys. Sure, you probably scan the responses to these annual surveys and take note of the big and obvious critiques. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s likely you’ll find out what your employees are truly saying.

Why is this information so important? For one reason or another, your employees might feel like they can’t tell you with complete honesty what they’re feeling all of the time. By reading between the lines of employee surveys you can get to the root of issues, help build team morale, spearhead change, and ultimately create a stronger team.


Psychological Safety: A Top Priority 

There’s one big reason why employee surveys can yield this wealth of information. Employee surveys can be a format where employees experience psychological safety, a term which was coined by Professor Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard Business School. She’s defined psychological safety as “a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.”

Think about it: particularly with anonymous employee surveys, your team may feel inclined to be fully open with how they’re really feeling. They may feel more psychologically safe to share their genuine thoughts and ideas without fear of repercussion. And psychological safety is just about everything when it comes to a successful and effective team.

A two-year internal study at Google found that psychological safety was the singular most important element on an effective team. Not only that, but the research concluded that those on teams with the most psychological safety were “less likely to leave Google, they’re more likely to harness the power of diverse ideas from their teammates, they bring in more revenue, and they’re rated as effective twice as often by executives.”

While psychological safety should not begin and end with employee surveys, they’re certainly a great place to start. Additionally, employee surveys can also be used to measure how psychologically safe employees on your team feel.


How to Decode Your Employee Surveys

So you have a stack of employee surveys, and you want to decode them, to find out what they really mean. In order to do so, it’s important to look at the data within the data. It’s also important to make sure you’re asking the right questions in your employee surveys. Here are some things you might commonly encounter in employee survey results and how to decode them:

  • Consider characteristics: Certain employee characteristics are important to consider when delving into your employee surveys, and can lead to telling information. Examples of characteristics can include age, gender, department, and job level. You might realize that a certain demographic of employees are feeling more included than another, or that another demographic is feeling more engaged.
  • Performance matters: While everyone’s employee surveys are important to consider, you especially want to look at the issues your higher performers are bringing up. If your most successful and engaged employees are bringing up issues, you should probably take them to heart. Especially if these issues have to do with things like a lack of growth opportunities, which can disenfranchise high performers. 
  • Remember context: Certain team lifecycle events can certainly impact the way your team answers employee surveys. Did you hire a bunch of new people at one time or was new management shifted into place right around when employee surveys were answered? Many contextual events can translate into different results.
  • Look for patterns: While a one-off comment is an obvious indicator of individual feelings, overall you should be looking for patterns in your employee surveys. Look for certain words or phrases that make frequent appearances, and look for patterns within certain demographics of employees (senior versus junior, for example).


What They Say Versus What They Mean

It’s important to recognize that when an employee says one thing, they might mean something entirely different, or it might take a little bit of work to uncover their real meaning. Here are some common answers your team members might give on their employee surveys, and what they might mean:

  • When it comes to training: If an employee expresses disinterest in going through training, it might be a sign that they’re thinking of jumping ship. Employee training is critical to retention, and if an employee isn’t interested in training with your team, it might mean they don’t see themselves at your company for the long-term.
  • When it comes to accomplishments: Employees should be able to name their own accomplishments – at least one. If they have trouble recalling any at all, it might mean they’re not hitting their goals, or even interested in setting them.
  • When it comes to being challenged: If an employee feels challenged at work and they’re a high performer, that can actually be a good thing – it means they’re being stimulated. If an employee is not being challenged, this could actually mean that they’re understimulated or bored. 
  • When it comes to management: Employee surveys can help you discern how your team feels about management. You should look for signs that employees believe management sets clear goals, that they give employee recognition, and that they provide support for goal accomplishment, among other things.
  • When it comes to psychological safety: Employee surveys are themselves a place where your team members might experience psychological safety. But you should also look for indicators that your team members feel psychological safety in your workplace as a whole. You can ask team members how strongs they agree or disagree with survey prompts such as “If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you” and “It is safe to take a risk on this team.” 
  • When it comes to fun and culture: Your employee surveys should also include indicators of how much your team really enjoys being part of your team, and how they feel about your company culture. If this feedback is lackluster, or you feel like your team could simply use a boost, Kabloom is here to help. Our hybrid and virtual team building activities can tangentially revitalize your workplace, such as our DIY Cocktail Class, Virtual Graffiti Workshop, and Team Yoga. We’re experts when it comes to team building activities that will get everyone genuinely excited. Interested in learning more? Schedule a demo today.