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Article | EX Insights

Survey best practice: What's in a norm?


By Adam Zuckerman | July 15, 2019

Every once in a while I have a client who pushes back on the value of external benchmarks. "Why compare to a Norm?" they'll say. "We're not trying to be normal. The only valuable comparison is to ourselves."

That line of thinking is understandable, and fair enough as far it goes. But just how far is that, exactly? In my experience, it’s about as far as the distance to the next company leader who asks, “73% say they understand our strategy, is that good?” Sure, one can speculate about why 73% is good or isn’t, but that’s all it would be – speculation. What’s needed is some reliable context, and that’s what a norm provides.

Helping you set priorities

Achieving normative levels is not the goal. Prioritizing the findings is your goal. Most surveys provide too much data, and this makes prioritization critical. How does one decide the most pressing opportunities that demand action? Comparing results with relevant context is one critical factor.

Let’s take an example. Suppose you run a survey and find that 78% say they get along with their colleagues and 65% believe there is sufficient staff in their area to handle the workload. Which score is “better”? Which warrants further scrutiny and action? In the absence of external benchmarks, one would be tempted to infer the company is understaffed and this should be addressed.

But now let’s add the benchmarks. In financially high-performing companies, we find that on average 89% of employees agree with the first statement, whereas only 60% agree with the second. Therefore, in all likelihood, your staffing model is fine (even if employees could benefit from more hands on deck), and it’s your levels of collaboration that may be sub-optimal.

Accounting for respondent bias

What our example reveals is that there are natural floors and ceilings in how people respond to surveys. One must take these into account, and control for them using norms, to identify true opportunity areas (and strengths). There are several known factors that influence these general tendencies, one of the most prominent of which is the country in which one works. Cultural, economic, and labor market factors among others can have a strong influence on survey results. The same score on the same question may be considered relatively strong in China, but rather poor in Mexico. Only by comparing with Country National Norms can this be readily seen. Other factors play an important role as well, such as job function, job level, and industry.

Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software provides hundreds of normative benchmarks available for comparison. Sign in to your account today to see which are right for you or contact us for a demo


Product Leader
Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software

Adam is responsible for the overall development and direction of Willis Towers Watson Employee Engagement Software. His goal is to create the world’s greatest software for delivering insight and enabling actions that enhance employee experience, company culture, and business performance. Outside of work, Adam enjoys off-roading in his Jeep and spending time with his family. Follow Adam on Twitter.

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