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Which survey results provide a better insight to employees’ sentiments? Quantitative or qualitative?

Updated: Feb 22, 2021

Quantitative data are information about quantities, and therefore numbers.

Qualitative data are descriptive, and regard information that can be observed, such as opinions.

You can measure quantitative results, but you cannot do so with qualitative.

When seeking information about your organisation using a survey, first ask yourself what you are trying to discover and what you will do with the information? This will affect your question type and the balance of quantitative vs qualitative questions you use. If you are looking for numerical data to measure, compare or track metrics over time, you will need quantitative data. If you want to understand the reasons, feelings and ideas behind the figures you will need to include qualitative questions.

There are advantages and disadvantages of both types of data so, usually, you will need a good mix of both quantitative and qualitative questions if you really want to listen to your employees’ feedback and act on it to make improvements. For example, a quantitative question will enable you to know how many staff would recommend working for your organisation to their friends and family, but without a qualitative question asking why they would or wouldn’t recommend you as an employer, it will be impossible to take the actions needed to ensure you do more of what is working and less of what is not.

The advantages of collecting quantitative data include the following:

 Information can be collected from an infinite number of participants and analysed electronically.

 A large survey audience can provide a plentiful range of results and clear quantitative outcomes.

 Large scale data collection gives credibility and reliability to the picture of the subject being studied.

 Data can easily be analysed and graphically reported for simple understanding.

 Surveys can be replicated and compared to earlier studies to clearly identify trends.

 With good question planning, the user will find the survey quick and simple to complete, increasing participation rate.

 Benchmarking results in different areas of your organisation, with others in your industry or with employee engagement market leaders, informs prioritisation of issues for action and recognition of successes.

 Supporting published achievements and improvements with numerical data builds confidence and trust.

 Deciding whether anecdotal concerns are widespread issues or infrequent aberrations can be established quickly.

 Measurable improvements over time demonstrate that staff feedback is listened to and acted upon and support a positive culture of feedback, learning and improvement.

However, quantitative data can be overly simplistic and has disadvantages such as:

 The data are a real-time numerical analysis with no understanding of why the statistics are as they are.

 There is no ability to follow up and understand a skewed or unexpected outcome.

 The questions asked can influence the outcome – just as a false answer can skew results, so can a biased set of questions.

 There is no access to feedback.

 There is no means to understand the respondent’s point of view.

 Respondents may perceive the survey as a “tick-box exercise”.

 It is very difficult to identify meaningful and appropriate actions and improvements based solely on survey result graphs and numbers without any understanding of the reasons behind the figures.

 Without qualitative data to provide understanding of the respondents’ views, assumptions of the reasons and issues behind quantitative figures tend to be used to inform actions and priorities. This undermines the purpose of the survey to listen to the staff rather than assume knowledge of what they think.

 Surveys which don’t lead to actions and improvements adversely affect employee satisfaction and regard for leaders, which may affect engagement, output and therefore business success.

Similarly, there are disadvantages to seeking qualitative data:

 The data are more time-consuming to review and analyse.

 Large volumes of free text comments are difficult to review in standard software such as Excel.

 Sample size can be an issue. Reducing the number of responses will result in potentially less representative or reliable findings. Proceeding with a large sample size will overcome this issue but may be overwhelming to manage without external help.

 The intelligibility of the feedback affects the usefulness of the data.

 Survey questions need careful consideration to avoid creating bias and false representation.

 Analysis is more complex and time-consuming. Additional work or external input may be required to report outcomes meaningfully.

 Without a robust review process, important or serious issues could be missed.

On the other hand, there are multiple benefits of including qualitative questions in a survey:

 The real value of employee surveys is in the free text comments. This is where you can truly listen to the feedback which will inform the growth and prosperity of your organisation.

 Feelings, opinions, attitudes and ideas are captured, which can be used to create a better experience.

 Comments in respondents’ own words, detailing their experience, views or suggestions, enable a much more in depth understanding of:

  1. what is working well,

2. what needs to improve and

3. what is most important to them.

These three pieces of information are the key to understanding what you need to do to improve employee experience and engagement.

 Themes and trends of common issues can be identified, consolidated and then quantified.

 A wealth of meaningful information is available to inform improvement strategies, for example knowing why employees are dissatisfied with career progression is much more useful than simply knowing the rate of dissatisfaction and guessing at what may be the issues.

 Direct quotes can have a strong emotional impact, whether in marketing materials or internal communications. Whether it is board members reluctant to embrace change or potential new customers sitting on the fence, the right quote can convey much more than simple numbers and graphs.

 Feedback can explain phenomena which previously were inexplicable.

 There is an option to link directly with an individual when urgent action is required.

 Sentiment analysis – or ‘opinion mining’ – allows feedback to be identified, extracted, quantified and studied.

 With effective tools, the respondent is given a voice and can be heard, understood and used to make meaningful and visible changes.

 When respondents are asked for their comments, this displays a genuine interest in their feedback.

 It is much easier to develop a successful action plan leading to genuine improvement and business success from the advanced understanding gleaned from qualitative survey data. For example, all comments relating to inclusion or training can be collated and reviewed in detail by the lead for those areas.

 The open-ended nature of qualitative questions lends itself to gathering new ideas and driving innovation. Rather than asking about current or planned initiatives in confined, closed questions, using open, qualitative questions can gather a diverse range of new and innovative ideas.

ResponseStar has learnt through experience that to make the most of your survey responses you need to include plenty of those all-important qualitative questions and you need to establish a thorough and efficient review process. This enables you to truly listen to your employees, gather the valuable information you need to make meaningful improvements and reap the rewards of improved employee engagement including increased productivity and net profit.

The most successful surveys, where you really learn something and have the detail to know how to act on this new information, include qualitative questions alongside quantitative, and human review of responses alongside software solutions.

The usefulness of the survey is dependent on good planning, good question design and, ultimately, robust data review and analysis. Robust data review of any volume of free text comments can appear daunting or can easily become overwhelming. This is where we can help you make the most of your survey with our response management app. ResponseStar helps you to combine the all-important human review with the ease and efficiency of a software solution.

For more information about getting the most from your survey, including how to make the most of free text comments, get in touch with us at

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