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The Secret to a Successful Employee Engagement Survey

Updated: May 5, 2023

Part 2 of 2

Get the Language Question Right, Use Rituals to Build Trust, and Budget for the Post-Processing from the Start

In Part I, we gave an example of how we ran employee surveys for a company with 15,000 staff in the Arabian Peninsula. We showed how you need Inter-Cultural Intelligence to decide on things like how to deliver the survey (digital vs. paper), and whether or not to include Free-Write sections. In this article, we will talk about more ways to ensure that your survey gets you the information you want, by guiding you through two questions:

“Should we offer in multiple languages?” and “How do we get the respondents to trust us?”

The Human Terrain

All of the techniques used here are based on our knowledge of the human terrain of the organization we are working with. This organization had the following characteristics:

Should we offer the survey in multiple languages?

In this organization, if we walked into a room and said, “We have surveys in two languages: those who need the Arabic raise your hands… and those who need English raise your hands,” everyone would raise their hand for the English version even if they didn’t have enough English to really understand and respond to the questions.

This is because, even though Arabic was an official language, the organization predominantly spoke English, and it was seen as shameful to need the Arabic version of the survey.

Our solution was to print English and Arabic side by side, and thus sidestep the issue entirely.

“How do we get the respondents to trust us?” – Use Rituals to Build Trust.

Because employee trust in the company was not high, we agreed with the HR director and the CEO that none of the filled-in surveys would ever get into the hands of any senior people in the company.

To communicate that to the employees, we created a ritual. We harvested the data in large groups, an hour at a time, and chose key locations throughout Saudi Arabia where we could control the procedures in order to build and communicate trustworthiness.

Show that you’re in control – We made sure that we were the first people in the room, so that when the employees arrived, they could see that we were in charge and in full control of all the paperwork related to the survey. We would welcome them, have everybody sit down, and then explain how the process would unfold.

Communicate with stagecraft – We had booklets in sealed envelopes, and we would rip open those envelopes in front of everybody, pull out the booklets, and say, "These surveys came in our bags straight from our KnowledgeWorkx office. As soon as you complete the survey we have another stack of envelopes, right here, to put them in, and will take them straight back to our office.” And that’s what we did. Nobody would leave the room until everyone had completed their survey, and then we would put them back in envelopes, seal them, and put them in our bags.

All of that that was part of the ritual by which they could see and feel that these surveys were under the control of the “consultants from KnowledgeWorkx,” and that we were serious about their privacy.

The response was incredible: we got very honest feedback in the free-write sections and close to a 90% response rate.

Plan for the Processing from the Start

Now, years later, a Dubai-based company that was affiliated with this organization did a survey along similar lines. Their experience shows that even if you follow Inter-Cultural Intelligence principles when you conduct a survey, but don't budget time, money, and people with the right skills to go through the free-write pieces, you could still be in trouble.

They had large group sit-downs where people were given a booklet, which included a free-write section. They got responses from 1400 employees, and on average each person wrote three comments, which included longer stories and full paragraphs. That’s close to 5,000 comments, which is a gold-mine. . . but only if you have the budget to process them. This HR director did not budget time to process all the free-write pieces of text, which made the exercise useless.

Furthermore, if people do not feel that management takes their comments seriously, surveys can backfire, especially in Community Accountability and Honor/Shame environments.

How to Build Successful Intercultural Surveys

In these two articles we talked about how to use your knowledge of the human terrain to predict demographic issues, decide on logistics and presentation, use rituals to build trust, and remember to budget for the post-processing from the start. However, these are all based on examples from just one company.

How to do successful surveys in intercultural settings is a much larger, more complicated topic than a single case study can address. The knowledge required to analyze the human terrain, forecast problems, and then develop solutions based on the unique combination of factors present is a result of long experience and sharp observation. But we hope it gives you a start in creating meaningful surveys in intercultural situations.


This Series: Part 1 Part 2


To begin your culture learning journey, Contact us or get our mini-ebook: Inter-Cultural Intelligence: from surviving to thriving in the global space.


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