Surveying the Truth

DO YOU REALLY KNOW WHAT YOUR EMPLOYEES are thinking? If given a choice, most spa directors would choose a root canal over an employee survey. And yet without a survey, most of us know that the majority of the information we need to improve employee morale and motivation will never reach us.

While this is true for virtually any company, in the spa industry there's an additional reason—the innate personality style of our service providers. Identified by one personality-survey method as "Amiables," these individuals are highly relationship oriented and also highly averse to taking risks. As a spa director or owner, you are likely to be an "Expressive," which is the risk-taking version of a people person. You're happy to speak your mind, and you probably can't understand why anyone who has an issue doesn't just spit it out.

The biggest risk for someone with the Amiable personality style is "speaking truth to power." Speaking truth in the break room is another story, which is also why this personality style is particularly vulnerable to "one bad apple syndrome." It's easy to infect a team of Amiable individuals with negativity. But it's next to impossible to get anyone to tell you why they're unhappy. In deeply dysfunctional spa teams, commiseration and passive aggressive behavior are practically a form of recreation.

Yet even healthy, well-managed spas have plenty of problems. For you, the spa leader, it's easy to believe that because no one is complaining, everything is okay. Why spoil a peaceful environment with an employee opinion survey? Because you need to, in spa parlance, purge the toxins. And the only way this will happen is if you make it safe and easy to do so. Over the years, I've conducted an annual survey using a variety of different media and formats. The "captive audience" approach of completing the survey at a staff meeting generated the most participation but didn't encourage full anonymity, a prerequisite for employee honesty.

 Survey Says...
Survey Says...

More recently, I have fallen deeply in love with a free online survey tool known as Survey Monkey ( Survey Monkey lets you quickly and easily custom design a survey that can include multiple choice, ranked, yes/no, and open-ended response questions. The only catch is that the free subscription limits you to 10 questions. Ultimately, that's a good thing. The shorter your survey, the more likely it is that your employees will complete it. (See "Survey Says" for a sample of an effective survey.)

Once you've conducted a survey, the hardest thing to do is to read the results for the first time. This never gets any easier, no matter how many surveys you conduct. Most of us believe we're doing a really good job and care deeply about our people. And while you may not notice it during your first 20 perusals of the results, there is probably plenty of positive feedback along with the negative. (Typically, you will need a friend or spouse to point this out to you, because you will have fixated on one team member's particularly ascerbic comments.)

Gradually, however, your blood pressure will return to normal. Now you're ready to look at the comments and criticisms as an opportunity. I recommend sharing the survey results with your entire team after first removing any sensitive information. This is not necessarily a popular policy. Institutional honesty is important in any organization that is committed to improvement, but it doesn't always feel good to the people on the receiving end of the criticism. Managers who have been criticized are not identified personally when we share our results; instead, the management team as a whole is in the hot seat.

The courage that is required to say, "This is what you said, and we heard you, and we think your opinions should be shared," will inspire your team and build your company's credibility. Knowing that someone is listening to your concerns—even amplifying them for the group's benefit—is empowering. However, just airing and sharing criticisms is not remedy enough. You also need to address and act on the criticisms. Some things may never change—for example, an employee who thinks everyone should receive a month's paid vacation each year will probably not see his suggestion enacted. But much more likely, you'll hear about areas in which the company or its management is not "walking the talk." Most employees understand what's possible and impossible. They just want to keep us honest. They would like us to do what we say we are going to do. Understanding where those disconnects exist is the principal value of an employee survey.

Finally, an annual survey should not take the place of ongoing, informal, frank dialogue. Make sure that every staff meeting includes time for this. (You won't get much input unless it's done in smaller groups or teams.) I also remind managers that we must "be present to win." In my consulting practice, I see many spa directors and managers retreat into the relative safety of an office and avoid the operations floor—they're relieved to leave it behind. Just like our guests, however, our employees need to be asked for their feedback and opinions. As Steven Covey's classic book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (Fireside, 1989) reminds us, we must "seek first to understand, then to be understood." What better way to start, than with a question?—Peggy Wynne Borgman

Peggy Wynne Borgman is the CEO of Wynne Business and the director of two Preston Wynne spas. Borgman is a principal consultant and seminar leader for Wynne Business and author of Four Seasons of Inner and Outer Beauty: Spa Rituals for Well-Being Throughout the Year (Broadway Books, 2003). She is also a member of the Day Spa Association's advisory board. You can reach her at [email protected]