Hey Andy and Emma,

I manage a small company and we use one of those monthly anonymous survey services to take the temperature of the team. Whenever there’s a small dip in the numbers, I immediately feel as if I’m failing my team as a leader. I want to use this tool as a means to improve our company, but I hate how anxious I feel when I get an email that the results are in. How can I better frame this style of feedback and stop feeling like I’m signing myself up to sit in the dunk tank every month?

Emma: Oof yep. I love the concept of pulse surveys. They can deliver so much unvarnished truth, which *supposedly* can be used to execute the exact kind of change your team or company needs. But they should also come with a warning label: Side effects may include debilitating emotional turmoil.

Andy: Ask a therapist if it’s right for you! Honestly, feedback via a pulse survey is only useful the way any kind of feedback is useful — which for me is with distance and context. I can so fully relate to your dunk tank feeling. I once managed a team that had a pulse survey program and an anonymous Google Form with instantaneous email alerts every time a new piece of feedback was submitted. I recommend this to absolutely no one.

Emma: Let’s get tactical on how you can make this survey program work better for you. We have three strategies to consider.

The first is to cancel the service altogether. Just give it up. I’m not sure how long you’ve been at it, but if it’s been more than…six months? And you haven’t metabolized the survey information into anything useful, I’m not sure if it’s going to happen.

Andy: This is a great choice. It’s what we did with the Google Form — just flat out killed it. We had set it up with all good intentions, but frankly, it did more harm than good. I had a hard time feeling helpful and listen-y to my team after I read one of those comments, even as I deeply wanted to make things better. We’re not recommending you silence all feedback. We’re saying to make the format one that works for everyone, including you.

Ask Yourself: Is This Working?

This is an obvious question we often miss when we’re operating how we think we should be operating, but not in a way that’s getting results. We’ve used these questions to make decisions large and small, from cancelling a software subscription to increasing work from home flexibility.

    • What’s the goal of this thing?
    • Have we done anything with it?
    • Am I using it?
    • Is anyone using it?
    • Do I like it?
    • Does anyone like it?
    • What good has come of it?
    • What bad has come of it?

Emma: Killing the survey doesn’t have to be a cynical decision! If your company is small enough, if you’re having regular 1-on-1s, if you care as your email makes you sound like you do, you’re probably pretty keyed in. My hunch is you already have a good idea when the numbers are going to dip, whether or not those reasons are preventable in the future, and what you’re willing to do to address them. Opening the monthly survey results emails is just double confirmation. You can decide how useful of a tool that is.

Andy: If outright cancelling isn’t the right choice, our second strategy is to create more distance between yourself and the results. We’ve said before that frequent feedback makes it no big deal, but this monthly cadence sounds like too much, at least right now. When I read your email, I immediately thought of the advice for a 401k which is: Do not check it too often.

There are a lot of ways to create space. You could decrease the survey frequency, or decrease how often you read the results, or have someone else read them for you…

Emma: You could create a subcommittee, or choose to focus on just one or two metrics that you’re actively working on changing. Here is exactly what I would do:

    1. Unsubscribe from or auto-archive the monthly results emails.
    2. Appoint one of your deputies to bundle the results into a quarterly report, with a high-level overview and some recommendations. This should be a person you trust and who is also hungry to be more involved in the human capital side of things. Roll this report into your standing 1-on-1s.
    3. Help that deputy evaluate which recommendations to move forward with, and support them in making them happen. Consider giving them a raise along the way.
    4. Depending on the size and structure of your organization, I could see this also being a small cross-departmental committee chaired by an excellent person from HR. Or maybe it’s a brand new role you hire a consultant for. Potentially two consultants. Named Andy and Emma…

Andy: I love every single part of that plan. Remember this: your downward spiral into failure despair over bad numbers benefits absolutely nobody. On the other hand, offering up those survey results to smart people who care as much as you do, and then empowering them to affect change, while at the same time creating an incredible results story for those people to brag about in their next job interviews, and simultaneously addressing the needs of your entire organization, benefits absolutely everybody. It’s also a pretty decent definition of Leadership.

Emma: Our third strategy is to slowly and surely build up your resilience in the face of disappointing results. I assume this is what you had in mind when you emailed us in the first place: What can you change about yourself to make this experience less dunk tank-y.

Andy: I’ve found that a lot of managing is a dunk tank, and part of being a Good Boss is stepping up to it with enthusiasm and glee. Sort of a “Yes! Dunk me!” attitude. If I’m bracing for the water, I’m doing it wrong. If I’m wearing a snorkel, I’m a lot closer to getting it right.

Emma: I actually think it would go a long way to chant “Dunk me! Dunk me! Dunk me!” out loud when your inbox pings with those survey results.

Andy: YES!

Another way I’ve built resilience at work is by getting hobbies outside of work — things that made me feel skilled and good. That outside success helps remind me I’m not my job. It also levels my self-worth, so it’s not rising and falling with the pulse score, which makes it a lot easier to open the pulse results (or any other “bad news machine”) and look at the data objectively, and effectively.

Emma: I also think this will get easier to absorb blips in the numbers the first time you find surface an area for improvement and implement a change. You’ll have been able to use the survey tool how you actually want to use it – sort of like the first time you make it down a ski slope without falling. “Oh, so that’s how it works.”

Andy: We’d love to hear how it’s going in a few months. Please write!

Good Boss Achievement Stickers: Dunk Tank Edition

Four illustrated digital stickers: [1] Cartoon guy sitting on top of a dunk tank with caption "I cant wait to get wet!" [2] Prescription bottle with pills that reads "Feedbackizol side effects may included: debilitating emotional turmoil" [3] A piece of paper with charts and graphs with a stamp on top that reads "cancelled" [4] Illustrations of Andy and Emma with a caption "Delegated what makes me miserable wink wink"