A Take on Pulse

Thoughts and opinions expressed here are fully of my own from my observation across the industry and do not represent my current employer’s perspective or their practices and methods.

“What’s your pulse score?” is a common question you might overhear someone ask a manager at a tech company.

Pulse surveys (or simplified to just “pulse”) and their results have become a familiar exercise in the tech industry to gauge employee perspectives across a number of axes such as their leadership, the company mission, and their work environment.

Photo by Alexander Sinn on Unsplash

While these anonymized surveys are a valuable tool that reveal insight into what was previously hard to retrieve, it’s grown into a dominant method for evaluating manager accountability, gauging organizational health in practice. While Pulse is a strong “health-check” indicator of organizational health or how a particular manager is performing, these topics are both continuous journeys that require cumulative work and evaluation from multiple dimensions and angles.

Over-reliance on Pulse surveys as the only practice for employee feedback and management accountability will hurt the organization. There are alternative ways to incorporate this valuable tool into a management strategy.

First off, What is a Pulse Survey?

Pulse surveys provide an anonymized, aggregated perspective from the wider organization. One instance consists of a set of questions that ask employees to respond with a single grade for each question.

Some example questions may look like this:

“I can get the help i need from my teammates and colleagues”
“My manager holds me accountable for delivering results”
“I have confidence in the leadership of my organization”
“I would recommend my company as a good place to work”

(1 for strongly disagree through 5 for strongly agree)

The results are aggregated and compared across managers, across teams, across organizations, and to historical data. This exercise is intended to be run at regular intervals to allow leadership to get a “pulse” on their team’s perspectives on selected subjects.

What makes Pulse great and what should we watch out for?

++ Getting, organizing, and making sense of feedback is hard and a pulse survey makes this easier.

Companies love pulse because it’s lightweight for responders, and easy to set-up for facilitators.

Perspectives from every angle of the company is valuable to ensure a productive, collaborative, and effective workplace. Decisions made from a 360-birds-eye view can cause unintentional friction and barriers to daily execution. It’s easy to lose sight of the challenges on the ground from a leadership perspective when one’s not thinking about the details.

++ Pulse surveys give leadership the ability to view trends, compare between teams, and identify wider systemic problems

By restricting responses to a singular number, these surveys make it easy to analyze the results — the scores can be easily aggregated, plotted over time, and comparable across multiple dimensions.

— — Pulse has become the dominant form of retrieving employee feedback

While managers should be continuously retrieving feedback from their team, it’s difficult to aggregate responses and analyze them at scale. Pulse gives you a sense that this is possible as the scores are tied to questions that link to a specific focus area.

However in practice, Pulse is too vague and does not happen frequently enough to be the main forum for employee feedback. A single score doesn’t take into account how a responder is feeling the moment they took the survey, or how they interpret the question, or what their desired outcome may be. Managers should not rely on Pulse surveys to gauge their team health — it is not the only signal.

— — Pulse has become the dominant form of holding manager accountable*

Pulse is a health check, not a grade

When something becomes a KPI, it becomes optimizable. If a manager wants to game the system and raise their pulse score, they can and that breaks down the whole system and its intention. Some unintentional behaviors include holding off on performance conversations, focusing on employee happiness at the expense of executional goals, and the like.

There once was a manager who indexed so heavily on this score that he pushed his team to “raise their scores.” The employees were so afraid of giving real feedback and instead provided good numbers just to avoid conflict.

An effective manager balances trade-offs and finds a workable compromise between individual goals and company goals — over-indexing on and optimizing one score disrupts these compromises. Not to mention that a single score doesn’t indicate enough to be a judgement of performance and is definitely not sufficient for actionable feedback.

++ Pulse can act as one form of holding managers accountable to maintaining a healthy team culture across the designated axis*.

You may notice this positive note contains an asterisk and may seem like it conflicts with point #4 above. However both can be true. Pulse surveys take a light health check on how teams are doing — if a manager is completely missing the ball, then the survey results will reflect their behavior.

Pulse is a good signal for some of what’s known and a guide for areas to investigate.

As noted previously, it’s vital to not over-index on the score without fully understanding what other factors are at play. The influencers are frequently not all within the control of one manager. If the full burden of “make sure your employees all respond positively on pulse” is put on the manager, the organization puts unrealistic expectations on one job function and risks burning their managers out.

— — Pulse does not allow for identifying influential biases.

Many situations can cause employees to feel unmotivated or stressed, thus responding negatively to a short score-based survey. Examples of things that are outside of one’s control include events such as a sudden stock drop at a publicly traded company or a rigorous annual planning exercise.

While It’s true that over time, these biases can be eliminated, organizations change and reorg much too frequently to eliminate all biases in a small set of data.

Responding to Pulse

The number of nuances raised about pulse might seem alarming, but that’s not to say organizations should not use pulse surveys at all. Pulse surveys can be very valuable and capture problems that may otherwise go unnoticed. It creates a very high-level overview of employee sentiment and should be treated as such.

Pulse provides a weak signal that may indicate an unnoticed problem, but it is much too vague to truly diagnose the problem. If one notices a negative trend appearing through pulse surveys, it’s important to follow up and start the diagnoses:

  1. What is causing this trend?
  2. Is there an actual problem that calls for change?
  3. Where did communication fall apart in other forms of feedback such that this wasn’t revealed earlier?

Pulse shouldn’t be the only form of communication upwards for employees and Pulse results should not be a surprise — it is a sanity check for what is already known.

If leadership reacts to pulse scores with immediate solutions without first understanding the situation, then there’s a high chance the wrong problems are being solved and new problems will be introduced.

Beyond Pulse

How to raise organizational health by building a psychologically safe work environment can be a long article on its own. For brevity sake, I will touch on a couple of ideas as a starting point.

Use pulse as a secondary health check on your organizational health and manager accountability. Your organization should have a continuously evolving system or process in place that gives you a wider, more in-depth perspective.

On employee feedback — It’s best to have multiple channels that give everyone a chance to provide upwards feedback, anonymous or not. Ideally, people feel a strong level of trust such that they feel comfortable providing feedback and sharing ideas with anyone. Making trust and transparency key principles in your organization can help here, but practically speaking we always have to be on the watch for the unexpected.

On manager performance — While a manager’s job is to help a team to succeed, there are numerous aspects to this success and it’s slightly different in every situation. I put together a list of focus areas for a front-line manager here. In addition to evaluating the manager on product and delivery results, there are multiple dimensions that signal how effective a line manager is. Direct-report feedback is one of the critical aspects and should be covered by the skip-level lead.

I’ll leave you with one final thought:

When a doctor checks a patient for their pulse and something feels off, they don’t immediately jump to a diagnosis: “YOU HAVE CANCER!” They take it as a signal to run their process for more in-depth monitoring.

We should treat our pulse results the same: it’s an important signal, but also just one signal.

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Passionate Engineering & Product Leader who loves investing in people, building impactful products & optimizing efficiency through adaptable processes.

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Annie Zhou

Passionate Engineering & Product Leader who loves investing in people, building impactful products & optimizing efficiency through adaptable processes.