Help! My Pulse Survey is Flatlining

There’s a current trend that exists right now that I simply can’t quite get my head around. At a time when there is so much chatter about the demise of the traditional employee survey, some organisations are responding by doing more surveys.

Let’s be clear about this – a survey is still a survey, no matter how frequently you conduct it, and no matter if you stick the word “Pulse” in front of it.  Simply conducting more of the same is not an innovation or a new way of doing things, it’s inevitably a backwards step for the organisations that get sucked into the trap of quarterly (or even worse, monthly) employee surveys.

The justification for more regular pulse surveys (or ‘temperature checks’ as they are sometimes called), can appear eminently sensible. After all, the pace of business change is so fast, it can be argued annual surveys simply don’t cut it anymore. But, here’s my problem with pulse surveys: They are a whole lot of work for not much, if any, gain.

It’s not especially engaging

Often, all organisations really do with them is ask a subset of the same questions again and again and again – it’s not especially engaging for participants, is it? Still, at least it provides some vague and spurious metrics to track and procrastinate over – how else would organisations know if their actions from the big annual survey were making a difference to levels of engagement?

Well, there are plenty of emerging insight/listening platforms that can provide much deeper insights than punishing people with more agree-disagree statements. In addition, the real problem with pulse surveys is that they’re far too easy to start going awry. This means there is no time to study them properly, or do anything meaningful with the data – let alone be able to change anything before the next one.

Frequency versus relevancy

I call this leaders getting blinkered about frequency rather than relevancy. This is when they forget what the actual objective is for wanting to gather more regular feedback. Even if they do decide a survey has a specific purpose, in many instances pulse surveys are only sent out to small samples of the employee population, which can present problems when it comes to slicing and dicing the data as the sample sizes are simply too small.

The other problem I have with pulse surveys is that by their very nature, they create heightened employee expectations. Staff will expect change to be as regular and visible as the surveys are given to them – but how many organisations can really do this? Looking in from the outside, change happening on this basis can seem knee-jerk, and actually less thoughtful than change that takes longer to take hold. The best leaders are those who can think about the bigger picture and that spot longer-term trends. They’re not the sort of people who are deflected by a single spot-result, a snapshot in time.

Oh, and let’s not forget something else. Without appropriate communication about the purpose and segmentation processes of pulse surveys, employees could be forgiven for wondering why they, rather than their neighbour, are being asked their opinion.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing bad per-se with gathering employee insight. After all, leaders regularly talk about this being their main priorities to improve on.

What are the alternatives?

Even if you feel the annual engagement survey really is outdated, I believe there are other, more ingenious (and arguably illuminating) ways of gathering insight. Doing the same survey, but now just every quarter or every month is hardly the definition of innovation. Text and Sentiment analysis, social collective intelligence systems, social network analysis – these are different, and far more engaging ways of gathering how people feel. In lots of ways they paint a truer picture of what people really think, because it’s unstructured, and doesn’t require employees to answer things on a questionnaire in a particular way.

More data can be better than less data – but if that’s the road you’re going down, at least make sure it’s more meaningful data.

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