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Rethink Your Employee Surveys: 6 Ways to Uncover Toxic Leadership Habits

New research shows that critical management mistakes often are overlooked in employee surveys. Here’s how to optimize your surveys to get a more accurate gauge of leaders’ performance.

employee survey on a laptop


Overly simplistic and standardized employee surveys are only scratching the surface of what workers truly think of their leaders, and that’s allowing some bad management behaviors to slip through the cracks, according to new research by Binghampton University’s School of Management.

Instead of capturing actual behaviors of company leaders, employee surveys too often simply reflect whether employees like their managers and executives on a personal level. The study found that participants in employee surveys often rely on their long-term memories and broad perceptions of how managers perform on the job, and critical leadership mistakes are often overlooked.  

“There’s a big difference between how people perceive a leader to be doing and how effective that leader truly is in that role,” says Bryan Acton, a Binghamton professor of organizational behavior and leadership who is a co-author of the study. “If we’re promoting the wrong people, keeping bad leaders in their positions and making important decisions based on an overly simplistic approach to leadership studies, that could be a problem.”

The study found that organizations require more critical thinking and pointed questions when surveying their employees—especially to dig up otherwise uncovered instances of toxic leadership and to properly assess company leadership. These are important decisions, because companies often rely on employee surveys to make decisions about raises, bonuses, promotions and other career-ladder calls for management.

Optimize Your Surveys

Employee surveys that measure executive performance often need a makeover, workplace experts say.

“Employee surveys can give leaders quantitative data that they can analyze and use as a metric for improving their performance,” says Sheryl LaPlace, a consultant with HR services provider Insperity. “Focusing on organizational improvement instead of blame will help drive constructive employee feedback, as well as encourage management to accept and embrace the feedback received.”

Here are several ways that experts recommend repositioning employee surveys and rewriting the questions to genuinely reveal what employees think about their company leadership. Whether those changes lead to executive promotions or walking papers isn’t as relevant. What really counts is letting the chips fall where they may.


1. Put Psychological Safety First

Before management can create an employee survey that helps evaluate how senior executives are performing on the job, they need to protect employees first. Make sure workers trust in the confidentiality of the survey and believe their leaders will review and act on the results.  

“The first thing organizations need to establish is psychological safety, including the fundamental foundation of trust,” says Allesandria Polizzi, a former HR executive and current mental health specialist at Verdant Consulting. “Most employees distrust surveys, believing them to lack anonymity. No framing of a question will overcome the fear of retribution.”

Guaranteeing anonymity is especially true if companies expect staffers to be candid about their bosses.

“Employees will answer surveys the most truthfully if they trust their employers to keep their identities anonymous,” LaPlace adds. “That’s especially true if they are providing feedback on other individuals within the organization, whether co-workers or leaders.”


2. Ask the Right Questions

Surveys should seek to gather as much detailed feedback as possible while keeping in mind that employees are busy and will need time to give thoughtful responses.

“One key element in planning a survey is determining what kind of feedback leadership is looking for,” says Trevor Bogan, director of the Top Employers Institute, an organizational people practice services company. “Questions should give employees a chance to evaluate leadership style, effectiveness of communication, team management, goal setting, etc. to get a holistic perspective of the leadership team.”

Here are some key questions he suggests to measure management performance.

  • Strategy: Are you confident the strategic goals set by senior management will achieve the overall company objectives?
  • Ethical decision-making: Do you believe senior management makes decisions that benefit employees? Do they make decisions that benefit the organization?
  • Communication: How well do you feel you understand your company’s goals and strategies?
  • Employee development: Do you feel supported by management to do your job effectively?
  • Adaptability: How quickly does senior leadership adapt to changes in the industry and economy? Do you think they do it well?

One key point: Only ask questions about things that employees can reasonably know about and have a connection with.

“Well-designed surveys should always ask employees things they have direct insight into or experience with, rather than asking them to speculate,” says Emily Killham, senior director of research and insights at Perceptyx, a management advisory company. “Important characteristics for senior executives who use these studies are clear and open communication with employees, setting inspiring visions for the future, modeling appropriate management behaviors and creating a healthy workplace climate.”


3. Structure Questions for Maximum Effect

Asking the right questions is only part of the employee survey formula, especially when looking for input on management performance.

“It’s important to remember survey data is often only a starting point for further investigation,” LaPlace says. “Applying some key structural survey traits can help.”

For example, using a mixture of closed-ended and open-ended questions can elicit the best employee responses.

Multiple-choice questions are easily quantifiable, but they do not offer as much detail as open-ended questions that allow employees to answer freely,” LaPlace notes. “A mixture of both can help leaders to identify statistical trends in executive behavior with closed-ended responses and understand the reasons with open-ended answers.”

Also, get input from various sources to make sure the questions are as unbiased as possible.

“Questions should be written neutrally so that the question itself doesn’t prompt employees to respond in a certain way,” LaPlace says. “For example, the question ‘Many people see our executives as role models within our organization. Do you agree?’ could discourage employees from answering truthfully.”


4. Get Creative—but Don’t Go Overboard

Don’t be afraid to stray from the standard questions in an effort to engage employees.

“Companies should emphasize questions that cut to the chase without having employees roll their eyes,” says Victoria Pelletier, managing director at Accenture. “Try something like, ‘On a scale of “Captain Chaos” to “Zen Master,” how would you rate your executive’s ability to handle crisis situations?’ "

Also, don't be afraid to ask insightful questions that intrigue staffers. “For instance, ask employees questions like, ‘If you were shipwrecked on a deserted island, which executive would you want by your side?’ “ says Pelletier. “This can reveal leadership qualities that matter beyond the boardroom.”


5. Emphasize Data Tracking

How can companies best use management survey data to help senior decision-makers get better at their jobs? With quality and actionable information.

“Data is the “North Star” here,” Pelletier notes. “Dive into those survey results like a treasure hunt. Identify trends and outliers, and then schedule candid feedback sessions with your senior leaders.”

Encourage executives to embrace a growth mindset when reviewing employee surveys and commit to continuous improvement.

“Remember, data without action is like a GPS with no destination,” Pelletier adds.


6. Respond Quickly to Red Flags

When an employee survey reveals a problem with a toxic boss or executive, address the issue quickly and diplomatically.

“If you aren’t prepared to act, don’t ask for feedback,” Pelletier says. “Toxicity is like a sneaky virus in the workplace. Rooting it out includes identifying red flags, such as consistently low scores on questions related to team morale, trust and open communication.”

When the red flag is confirmed, don’t sugarcoat it.

“Take immediate action,” Pelletier advises, “Offer coaching and support, but be ready to make the tough call if necessary. Toxicity spreads faster than gossip at the watercooler.”


Brian O'Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Pa. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC Creating Wealth (John Wiley & Sons, 2001) and The Career Survival Guide (McGraw Hill, 2004).


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