Test, survey, consult? Part 2
How to avoid alienating your employees when asking for feedback on new initiatives, Part 2
In our previous blog post in this series we noted that different research methods and feedback mechanisms position your employees (the research subjects) differently and that this means that they raise different expectations for people participating in them. In this post we offer some insight into the kinds of expectations that are likely to arise from the different methods and mechanisms– testing, surveying and consulting.
Testing ideas typically involves experimentation and some kind of control group. If you’re applying this approach you are looking to understand the effects of a change in a given system. This is a research method that comes from the natural sciences but is found, in an adapted form, in sub-fields of business and marketing as well. Testing can be utilised without the knowledge of participants – though this kind of application would be ill-advised in most applied workplace contexts. At its most familiar level testing involves getting feedback on reactions to a proposed change before the change is implemented. Testing ideas on changes to a mission statement, for example, might involve asking two separate groups, with otherwise similar characteristics, for their views on two different versions of the mission statement to test which one is more popular and why. Research participants involved in ideas testing, who understand that testing is what they are participating in, are likely to expect that the overall findings of the testing will impact a given outcome, but would not necessarily expect that their personal views will influence decisions.
Surveying is a core research method in the social sciences. It involves asking a series of questions, either in person, or in written or electronic form, and it is usually, though not always, aimed at population level insights. Depending on the nature of the survey, research participants have varied expectations of influencing an outcome. If you’ve ever been called at home and asked for your thoughts on a topic that, until that precise moment in time you’d thought little about, then you’ll understand just how little research participants can expect from some kinds of survey. On the other hand, if you’ve ever been asked to participate in a workplace assessment of one of your colleagues, then you’ll appreciate that surveys can raise expectations too, though without necessarily delivering. Survey sample size and topic are important in terms of the expectations survey participants are likely to have. Generally speaking though, research participants involved in a survey, who understand that a survey is what they are participating in, are likely to expect that the overall findings of the survey will contribute to population-level knowledge of a topic and that this information may influence a given outcome. However, they would not expect that their personal views or situation will influence decisions.
While consultation has research implications and provides opportunity for learning and insight, it is an active method of engagement and the expectations of people who believe that they are being consulted with are likely to be higher than is the case with the other approaches considered so far. Describing a process as consultative positions the research subject as an active contributor in a project and will therefore lead to the reasonable expectation that they have some capacity to influence the final outcome. Consultation has a very important role in the development of workplace policy – when it involves consulting with external experts and when consulting with internal stakeholders. But naming something as consultation when in fact what you’re seeking is to test an idea or survey views on a given topic can have negative consequences. It can create frustration, resentment and cause people to disengage. When engaging in consultation it therefore becomes important to make clear what is in and out of the scope of influence.
For tips on how to determine which method matches your needs, watch out for the final blog post in this series.