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The Trouble with External Norms

Many companies like to use an employee survey instrument which has normative data so that they can see how they are doing compared to other companies in their field. This is a mistake.

There is only one good reason to conduct a general employee attitude study: To discover the problems that employees are having so that action plans can be developed and implemented to solve the problems that are revealed.

When management compares their survey findings to industry norms there are only three possible outcomes:

  1. The company is doing better than the competition. So why make changes? However, even the best companies can improve and focusing on competitors doesn’t allow you to spot your weak areas.
  2. The company is doing about average. Inertia is a powerful force and the response to this result is usually no change. However, expectations have been raised by the survey process and a failure to make changes will cause decreased morale, lower productivity and lower quality.
  3. The company is doing worse than average. This outcome leads to rationalization. “Considering the downturn, the problems we’ve been having lately, etc., things aren’t so bad.” Again the result is no change.

The above is not to suggest that comparisons should not be made. On the contrary, comparisons are necessary but they should be against internal norms and not external ones. You should look for the weakest topic scores, for the questions which produced the lowest scores, and for the groups which had lower scores than the organization averages. All of these comparisons will lead to changes which will be maximally useful.

Finally, you should do annual surveys and see where you are improving and where you are not. This is the best kind of comparison that you can make.

When you compare against your own internal norms you have to find weaker areas. Whether those areas are topics, questions, groups or places where improvement is not occurring, the discovery of weak areas automatically leads to change.

On the other hand, comparing to external norms is interesting but it is counter-productive and very seldom leads to necessary changes. If your goal is to improve your organization, avoid external comparisons.