October 28, 2020

Getting to The Truth Behind Employee Pulse Surveys

Every once in a while, you might receive an email in your company inbox asking for feedback on a survey called the Employee Pulse, the Employee Satisfaction survey, or something similar. If you’re a manager, you’ll likely receive the results of these surveys, comparing your department to the rest of the organization.

The common thread in these surveys is that they gauge employee satisfaction in a few different areas. They cover things like how people's direct supervisor is performing, whether or not they agree with the company’s vision, or if they plan to remain with the company in the future.

Statements are rated on a scale from 1 to 6, with 1 to 2 being unfavorable, 3 to 4 neutral, and 5 to 6 favorable. For example:

  • My manager proactively solicits feedback.
  • My manager creates a safe environment built on trust and respect.
  • My manager communicates how our team contributes to the company's overall mission.
  • Our company is committed to doing the right thing.

These statements will have a favorability score, which is the percentage of the respondents who rated the questions favorably.

The Problem with Pulse Surveys

As with all surveys, Employee Pulse surveys are subject to recency bias. Whether good or bad, everyone generally places more importance on recent events than those happened weeks or months ago. A good way to fix this is to conduct these surveys more frequently, though we must also be aware of survey fatigue and avoid overdoing them. Once every quarter is a good cadence to start.

People with negative feedback are more likely to fill out a survey to see improvements. If your response rates for surveys are low, it might be that employees with critical feedback are overrepresented in the respondents. For a more accurate picture, make sure your response rates are close to 90%.

Employees' interpretation of statements does not necessarily align with yours. Employees will have different perspectives about employee pulse survey questions, so you might not be measuring what you intended.

Finally, metrics collected by employee surveys are suspect to gaming. If managers are measured and compensated based on employee survey results, their motivation could change from making teamwork improvements to simply putting up better numbers.

Understanding and Improving Team and Company Health

The goal is not to improve the metrics, but to make meaningful changes that improve everyone’s work-life balance, productivity, and morale. Once you are successful in that, the employee survey ratings will improve, too. I usually try to follow a process like this to get to the truth behind employee pulse surveys:

First, understand and identify five questions you want to improve in the next cycle. I'd caution you against picking more than five questions, as any more risks spreading your efforts too thin instead of focusing them.

Once you have the areas on which to focus, use your one-on-ones to discuss them. I find it important to discuss problem areas because numbers don’t always reveal the nature of issues, just that there may be problems.

Ask team members to think about specific examples that the manager, team, or the company didn't do well, and how these processes can be improved. Identify action items the manager, team, or company should complete to move forward. Follow this process with everyone on your direct team. It’s important to emphasize to team members that you’re not asking for specifics about the ratings they provided, nor specific examples involving them, but general observations.

After you’ve spoken with everyone, identify common pain points and action items for each area. Discuss your findings openly with the team, but keep confidentiality in mind. Communicate the action items you take personally, as well as those for the team and those for escalation to upper management.

Finally, make sure you deliver on promises made to team members. Every once in a while, consider giving your team an update on the goals you set out for yourselves, and ask for their help when needed.

If the team's health improved through meaningful changes you’ve made, this should be reflected in the next employee pulse survey. Perhaps new issues will come up for that survey, except now you can follow the above framework and understand the truth about the survey’s results.

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