Checking your organization’s pulse: Using surveys for better performance

5 minute read

In recent years, there has been a major shift towards improving performance management systems to boost an organization’s effectiveness, especially through employee engagement. This post will focus on the measurement of employee engagement, as well as how to move beyond engagement, towards all indicators of organizational health.

We’ve talked about engagement in our blog before, but to recap, engagement is the extent that employees feel ownership over their work, are energized by their tasks, and find meaning in what they do. Engagement not only has an impact on the individual, but on the organization as a whole. Those who feel engaged in their work are more likely to be committed to the organization, feel more satisfied at work, and be more productive.

In order to leverage employee engagement, three questions must be answered:

  1. How do we ensure employees feel engaged, receive adequate support, and achieve optimal productivity at work?
  2. Is engagement the only factor we should be looking at?
  3. If not, how do we measure the gamut of additional organizational factors that contribute to performance?


Surveys have been popularized in the last few years to help assess a myriad of factors that can influence an employee’s performance and satisfaction at work. It is estimated that globally, 72% of large organizations and 50% of small organizations use surveys regularly. Organizational surveys are a powerful tool for identifying areas of improvement by providing employees with a voice for their opinions and thoughts about their workplace. They are also relatively low cost to introduce compared to existing performance management systems.

However, not all organizational surveys are created equally.

For these surveys to be effective, the content of questions should be attuned to the goals of the organization. With the right questions, they can be used to not only track attitudes and opinions over time, but to assess an employees’ understanding of the organization’s purpose and goals. Examples of important organizational indicators to consider that have been found to have significant impact on employee satisfaction and performance are trust, commitment, and leadership. As there are an overwhelming number of possible attitudinal and knowledge factors to consider when creating an effective survey, one must choose factors that closely align with the organization’s overall goals and objectives, and ones that will provide the most accurate results of the organization’s operations.

To complicate the situation, attitudinal and organizational factors do not work in isolation. Instead, some factors, like leadership, can trickle down and influence other employee attitudes and work motivation. Despite this complex web of interaction, some companies have developed stock surveys with pre-selected variables that they suggest any organization can use to improve its operations. Even though these general surveys can help diagnose and treat general issues in the same way taking an over-the-counter medicine can help with cold symptoms, in order to solve and treat the root of the problem, a customized test and treatment plan should be created.


For one client, we sought to create our own health and effectiveness survey – one which was grounded in science, and custom tailored to the client’s industry and organizational needs. We believe this has more inherent value to the company as it fit with the company’s industry, vision, and objectives, rather than an “one-size-fits-all” approach. In addition, while many consulting firm surveys focus on a particular aspect of an organization’s operations (which is often an arbitrarily chosen factor - e.g. employee engagement), we chose to focus on all factors that are actually determinative of performance (based on the organizational science), such as trust, innovation, and quality decision making. Thus, the survey is highly comprehensive and integrative, with 15 components, versus one or two.

The questions from our survey were created deductively. This means that instead of simply creating questions on broad concepts, with little knowledge of how they may relate to performance and each other, the questions were created following the Advanced Leadership Framework created by Mac Van Wielingen, Viewpoint Research, and in collaboration with several academic researchers through the Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership at the University of Calgary. This evidence-based framework focuses on 15 different factors that are related to increased organizational effectiveness. In other words, instead of ordering several broad tests, obtaining a list of symptoms and guessing the root cause, we have deduced several theoretical root causes, and test specifically to look for the related symptoms.

Unlike broad, general tests, the questions guided by the Advanced Leadership Framework yield survey results that are relevant and meaningful for that specific company, and directly related to proven performance factors. After creating these items, we tested the quality of our questions through administering the survey to two different pools of employees: 180 employees across numerous companies in the financial industry, and 48 employees of our client company.  This allowed for the calculation of financial industry norms for each of the 15 factors using the first pool of 180 employees. These norms can then be compared with the second pool’s scores to gauge their progress towards improving employee engagement and performance. After administering and analyzing the survey results, we work closely with the client in specific follow up interventions to manage performance and examine the growth and progress of employees.

Though it is no small task to create these customized surveys, the ability to assess and determine root problems in an organization, and to be able to train and provide support for those particular issues, is extremely valuable. We have also found the survey is useful in benchmarking and tracking performance over time, the early identification of issues/problems, and generally, for building the collective capabilities of employees in areas critical to the long-term performance of the organization.

A study by American Management Association has found that the highest performing organizations have several characteristics in common. Organizations that have consistent leadership and strategies were more likely to belong to the high-performance group. Furthermore, organizations that convey they care about employee opinions and provide regular feedback and expectations were also more likely to be high performing. Using organizational survey results as a guide, leaders can give employees a voice, and plan and execute strategies for increased effectiveness, taking their organization’s overall performance to the next level. 

This work has been funded by Viewpoint Capital Corporation.

Sources used for this post:

Gruman, J.A. and Saks, A.M. (2011), “Performance management and employee engagement”, Human Resource Management Review, Vol. 21, pp. 123-136.

Harter, J. K., Schmidt, F. L., & Hayes, T. L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: a meta-analysis.

IBM (2014). Beyond engagement The definitive guide to employee surveys and organizational performance.  IBM Software Technical Whitepaper. Accessed September 30, 2016)

Cox Edmondson, V. (2006). Organizational surveys: A system for employee voice. Journal of Applied Communication Research34(4), 307-310.

Church, A. H. (2001). Is there a method to our madness? The impact of data collection methodology on organizational survey results. Personnel Psychology, 54(4), 937-969. Chicago          

Colquitt, J. A., Scott, B. A., & LePine, J. A. (2007). Trust, trustworthiness, and trust propensity: a meta-analytic test of their unique relationships with risk taking and job performance. Journal of applied psychology92(4), 909.

Wright, T. A., & Bonett, D. G. (2002). The moderating effects of employee tenure on the relation between organizational commitment and job performance: a meta-analysis. Journal of applied psychology87(6), 1183.

Wang, G., Oh, I. S., Courtright, S. H., & Colbert, A. E. (2011). Transformational leadership and performance across criteria and levels: A meta-analytic review of 25 years of research. Group & Organization Management36(2), 223-270.

American Management Assn. (2007). How to build a high performing organization: A global study of current trends and future possibilities. Retrieved from articles/How-to-Build-a-High-Performance-Organization-05.aspx