Toolpack Consulting: research-based change including surveys

Data collection: Interviews

Like any other tool, interviews have a variety of advantages and disadvantages.


Surveys are fixed; the questions are placed down on the paper and cannot be changed. The interviewer, however, can probe for deeper answers, ask for elaboration and examples, discover new relationships, and modify questions as time goes on. Interviewers can get detailed information on what causes problems or benefits. In addition, they are immersed in social systems and cultures, and gain a much better grasp of the organization than they would by simpling reading survey results (even with open-ended items!).

Good interviewers can also elicit more honest and more sensitive information than surveys can. Surveys do not empathize or send messages of trustworthiness; they are simply there.

By using interviews, future change agents can also introduce themselves to the people in an organization, and establish both rapport and trust (if sensitive information is handled well).


Interviews take time --  about 30 to 90 minutes each. Interviewers can change the nature of the data, adding bias to the results with verbal and nonverbal reactions and with their choice of probes. Some interviewers always get what they expect.

When interview results are "coded," (content analyzed), more opportunities for bias creep in. Interpreting and summarizing the results can be dangerous when in the hands of an inexperienced, improperly trained, hurried, or careless consultant.

There is also the ever-present problem of all self-report measures: the interviewer has to take someone's word for the accuracy of the information. Everything the interviewer learns is based on the perceptions, knowledge, and words of the people being interviewed, rather than objective and behavioral data.

Finally, the people being interviewed should be told what form feedback will take, and how long it will take to get it. Because it takes a long time to finish interviewing and to code the data, it may be quite a while before they get feedback.

A cautionary note on interview feedback

Your credibility is on the line when you do an interview. Keep your promises of confidentiality and anonymity, particularly when you do the feedback. Try to avoid interviewing in times of personnel changes, because your activities may be linked to the changes. Finally, it is normal to only present information given by more than two people, and to reword any responses so the source cannot be guessed.


Interviews are very useful for gaining information on the perceptions and beliefs of people; their ideas for change and their opinions on what motivates, demotivates, frustrates, and encourages them; and the organizational norms and culture. However, there are strong potentials for bias in the hands of those who are untrained, careless, or very normative, and not all interview information may be accurate.

Interviews are one of the most valuable sources of information about an organization; their usefulness far exceeds their cost in most cases. However, the quality of the interviewer and data coder is essential to the accuracy of the information.

Types of Interviews

Interviews let you tap into a wealth of ideas, while immersing yourself in the organizational culture. They can bring up many thoughts and perspectives which surveys miss, and can completely turn around the interviewer's ideas about an organization, its culture, and its people.

 The basic differences between types of interviews are the amount of structure and the number of people involved. "Focus groups" are essentially group interviews, for example. The dynamics and methods are different but the goals are identical.

Structured interviews

In structured interviews, which tend to be the most common in organizational work, the interviewer has a list of questions to make sure certain topics are covered. The person being interviewed, however, can cover whatever ground they like. (Usually, there are questions specifically designed to let the person choose their own topics). The advantage of structured interviews is that they allow the exploration of specific topics, while allowing people to tell the interviewer what they think is important. Common questions ask what is going well and what is going poorly; what motivates people; how they like their job, their peers, and their supervisor; the goals of their organization; the obstacles to performance and success; and what it takes to get ahead. One question I usually ask is what people would to if they had complete power to change any and all parts of the organization --  the "kind for a day" question.

Most questions have "probes" -- follow-up questions that bring out more information. Even when there are no formal probes, the interviewer usually asks people to elaborate further, and should make sure the person is completely done with one topic before moving to another. Some people need more prompting than others.

While these interviews can be handled by phone, more information is usually given in person.

Unstructured interviews

Sometimes, the interviewer wants to let a person have complete control over the content of the interview. One or two questions may be used to start off, but from then on, the only questions are probes, where the interviewer asks for more elaboration.

Fixed-response interviews

These are basically surveys without pencil or paper. They were used extensively in social science research during the 1950s and 1960s, and may help in exploring sensitive subjects where response rates are low or where people tend to respond different in person versus on paper.


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