Four Reasons Pulse Surveys Don't Work

There has been a big movement toward deploying pulse surveys in the last few years, but I still see many organizations confused about how they should use pulse surveys and what benefits they can bring - as well as the perils of doing it wrong. In this blog, I want to focus on what pulse surveys really are, the major pitfalls to avoid and most importantly, how to make pulse surveys most effective for your organization.

Let’s first define what pulse surveys are. Pulse surveys are designed to capture, well, the pulse of the organization around key topics important to management. As the name indicates, these are surveys deployed in relatively short intervals, designed to gather high level data around specific topics or initiatives. But depending on the goals for your pulse survey program, you can take various strategies on content, frequency, target audience and data analysis.

Organizations often ask - should I replace my annual employee survey with pulse surveys? Or do they live together, and if so, how? I think there are advantages to both types of survey initiatives and it doesn’t necessarily mean replacing one with another. But as most things go the answer is: it depends. For larger organizations, an annual survey is still the cornerstone survey strategy. An annual survey is often aligned with the strategic planning process, helping to feed the annual strategy with input and insight into the people side of the equation. For smaller organizations, there might not be the appropriate resources to support both an annual survey and pulse surveys.

So why should you consider a pulse survey strategy? Primarily, it’s the speed of business. More specifically, the speed of business change. Most organizations would self-proclaim that there is more and more significant change in their business environment than in the past. To properly respond to the increase in change, organizations are looking for ways to be more agile and pulse surveys can provide more frequent data to improve organizational visibility.

As you decide to pursue a pulse survey approach, here are four common pitfalls to keep in mind and suggestions on how to avoid them.

1. Not Defining a Goal
It seems trivial, but clearly define the objective of deploying pulse surveys before you start. Improperly defined goals will lead to disappointment in the results and confusion amongst the organization as to what response they should expect from the survey results.

  • There are several ways to think about pulse surveys, depending on our intended use case:
  • Continuously listen to employee opinions 
  • Targeted, one-off surveys for big events or one-time organizational changes
  • Track feedback throughout the year between annual surveys
  • Measure results of responsive action as a result of an annual survey
  • Identify how to further improve responsive actions from an annual survey

These five goals are fairly common in pulse survey strategies. But a lot depends on your organization and how you might start a pulse survey program, especially if you have not deployed one before. 

2. Asking Unrelated Questions
Pulse surveys are not designed to be heavy. So it takes more discipline to maintain focus based on your goals. Some organizations deploy single-question polls, while others aim for 3-5 questions at most. The goal is to get feedback from the audience without consuming too much time. Some question topics to think about might be:

  • Employee sentiment - like the Net Promoter Score (NPS), “How likely are you to recommend a friend to work here?”
  • Managerial support - “Does your manager provide adequate training for you to perform your job?”
  • Effectiveness of responsive actions - “Has there been an improvement in the quality of communications in the last 6 months?”

Keep questions related to each other so the audience is not confused by the line of questioning and don’t look to acquire vast amounts of data. Pulse surveys are meant to “take a pulse” in specific areas of interest.

3. Too Often or Not Often Enough
Timing can be critical to gaining adequate responsiveness and buy-in from the audience. Surveys conducted too often can intrude on regular schedules and asking for feedback without adequate time lapse can create survey fatigue. Employees want enough time for change to have happened.

On the other hand, waiting too long allows issues to fester without getting adequate visibility. Intervals can vary from two weeks to quarterly, and it mainly depends on your goals. If you are looking to measure on-going sentiment, quarterly may be too sparse. If you are checking on how effective responsive actions have been, every two weeks might be too often. Make sure to align the timing with your goals.

4. Asking Everyone
Given that pulse surveys often look to target specific topics, think about the target audience that you need feedback from. Was the initiative related to a specific department or geography? Or a specific product-line or business unit? Pulse surveys don’t have to target all employees all the time. Your decision should be driven by the level of insight you are looking to gain to calibrate for the right audience set.

Pulse surveys are a great way to listen to your team and to create a regular channel for feedback from the organization. Make sure to consider your goals and define the right audience, content and frequency to maximize effectiveness and engagement with your pulse survey initiatives. And make sure to respond appropriately to concerns brought up in pulse surveys - no one wants to give further feedback without seeing responsive actions from the organization.