Startups: Pulse Surveys are Dumb.
Founders: stop sending engagement/pulse surveys.
There’s something I’ve been saying since SoapBox was first born: employee surveys are dumb. They’re really, frustratingly dumb. They’re not the solution to the employee engagement crisis. They’re part of the problem.
So stop filing them out — and if anyone gives you grief, send them this article.
Here are five reasons why employee engagement surveys need to go extinct.
1. On average, people who share harsh feedback quit before management acts on it ⏳
You’ve sent out an employee engagement survey before, right? Then you know the drill.
HR sends a survey to employees, who send their answers back to HR, who sends the responses to managers, who take action on the feedback… 21 weeks later (or longer). By then, most of the feedback will be completely out-of-date — and any of the employees who had major issues with the way you’re running the company are already long gone — after all, it takes most employees 17 weeks to quit.
Feedback needs to be immediate and ongoing — without that urgency, employees can’t see how their feedback leads to action, and so they’ll have no motivation to give the feedback in the first place.
2. HR is responsible for the feedback, but the problems are rarely HR issues ↬
Even if you’re doing weekly pulse checks, you’re still running valuable feedback through a needless cycle of HR and senior leadership before it gets back to the person that should actually care about it: the manager.
Not only are you running a serious risk of broken telephone. It’s also super inefficient and a waste of time for a number of people. Yes, it’s sometimes more awkward for the employee to deliver feedback directly to their manager, but that awkwardness is part of the vulnerability that makes the relationship strong.
Imagine you’re walking into a meeting with spinach in your teeth. Can you imagine how insane it would be if your employee stood up, walked out of the room and rushed to HR to let them know that you had food stuck between your teeth? Is that seriously less awkward?!
But most importantly, it sends a horrible cultural message: that feedback SHOULD come through HR — and managers aren’t responsible for pulling feedback from their team. Really, surveys are a cover for bad managers who don’t care to take the time to talk to their team.
Instead of doing surveys, you should be coaching your bad managers on asking the right questions and creating the right environment. Or for that matter, spending the time fixing the fact that you’ve hired bad managers in the first place (after all, companies fail to choose the right manager for the job 82% of the time).
3. They train people to care about the averages, not the individual 🤷♂️
Engagement surveys lack context. In other words, it’s really easy to ask a great question — at the wrong time.
Let’s say you did a company-wide kickoff where you went over the strategy and goals for the year. And you have a pulse question about whether employees feel connected to the company’s vision. If you send out that pulse question a day or two after the kickoff, you’re going to get a very different answer than if you asked in seven months.
Whether you’re doing regular pulsing or annual surveys, it’s really easy for employees to only get the really meaningful questions once a year — and so the insights you’re collecting aren’t really going to improve their experience or performance.
And even if you do ask the right question at the right time, you still risk a lack of context. The question “How accountable are your co-workers? 1–10” can mean so many things to so many people. It’s relative to personality types, departments…let alone each individual person’s approach to ranking.
Or, the fact that an average score of, say, 7.21 contains “far greater a distortion than if it simply surveyed one person.”
Plus, 25% of people make up random answers. So the aggregate data is skewed anyway…
On the other hand, if you’re asking a similar question to a direct report in a one-on-one meeting, you can get the additional context and can ask follow up questions to make it a much more meaningful discussion.
4. They’re annoying, 20-minute distractions from real work 🙄
There’s a reason why HR always worries that surveys are annoying the team. It’s because surveys ARE annoying the team. No one likes surveys. And if you add in the time it takes to switch tasks, even the simplest survey takes an employee away from their work for upwards of 20 minutes. It’s basic maker vs. manager stuff.
87% of people don’t want the distraction. And the other 13% who welcome a distraction are the actively disengaged people. So… you’re annoying the people you want more of, and you’re providing an outlet for people you want less of.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s super important to know what will make employees happy and satisfied at work. BUT, survey or no survey, 70% of the variance is proven to come directly from their manager. Doesn’t it make more sense to double down on that 70% than to waste everyone’s time addressing that other 30% with another survey that will hinder more than help.
Everyone hates filling out surveys. Everyone. Even HR. But we love sending them because they are a cheap way to have someone else do your work. It’s their work. Let them do it.
5. We’ve been doing this for 40 years and the numbers have NEVER CHANGED 📊
I can tell you right now: if you do an employee engagement survey, you’re going to learn that 30% of your employees are engaged, 18% are disengaged. Or you’ll have an eNPS score of like 15.
If it’s not that, it’s because:
- Your company has less than 10 employees, and engagement is staggeringly high because the CEO is your manager (then you’d have 41% engaged employees).
- Everyone at the company has started in the past six months (then you’d have 52%).
- Your company is that rare unicorn where every manager is amazing (if you work at this company, never leave your job — and tell your boss you appreciate them).
- Your HR or management team has gamed the system by sending out the survey immediately after announcing that you’ll be offering free lunches three times a week.
But really, at a certain size you’ll have 30% engaged people.
And this number hasn’t changed in 40 years.
Why? It’s not because people are born engaged or disengaged. They can switch teams in the same company and go from engaged to disengaged.
OK, so then why? Because 70% of the variance is managers… and we’re still trying to FIX the problem by sending our surveys.
Let’s face it, it doesn’t work.
And going from once-a-year surveys to weekly pulses won’t fix it.
Why haven’t we fixed the problem? Because it’s not HR’s job to keep employees engaged. It’s bad culture, bad awareness, and lazy thinking to put that task onto HR. It’s the manager’s job to keep employees engaged. It’s the CEO’s job. It’s the CTO’s job. Everyone that manages someone else has a responsibility to help that person thrive and grow on an ongoing basis — and that’s not something you can delegate out to HR, or anyone for that matter.
Stop with the employee engagement surveys 🙏. Take that budget, that energy, that time and put it toward empowering your managers to be amazing.
Because when managers are amazing, your employees will be, too.
Thanks for reading!
p.s. If your startup has hired a few employees (or you’re a manager), you should really check out our product SoapBox now.
Brennan is the CEO & Co-founder of SoapBox — the manager’s sidekick app, bot, and platform. Build better agendas, have better one-on-ones, team meetings, AMAs, town-halls and more, with your team.
If you liked this article, you should give it 12 👏’s (one for each pulse you’ll skip out on this year) to help others find it!👇