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Let’s take a poll

Many corporations survey their employees to gauge how well management, leadership, and corporate initiatives are performing. Microsoft has an annual, comprehensive, company-wide poll that arrives in employee inboxes this month and year-round targeted polls for a sampled subset of employees. While companies have many other ways to measure initiatives, this column is focused on detailed employee surveys. These polls typically ask many questions and can take nearly an hour to complete (longer if you deeply reflect on your answers and provide long-form comments). Is answering these polls worth your time?

Companies, including Microsoft, often bribe and bother employees with donut days and relentless reminders to induce them to submit their poll entries. Companies care so much because it’s important to get a broad sample. If only the most vocal employees respond, the results tend to be skewed—still interesting but not representative. Perhaps you agree with your more vocal colleagues on all things, but there’s a good chance you don’t. Letting them speak for you can have disheartening consequences.

Also, having your entire team respond ensures your individual voice is heard. Why? Because poll results are aggregated for privacy. Each team must have enough responses to protect the anonymity of individuals. If too few of your teammates submit, your response won’t count toward your manager and team. Instead, it will be aggregated to your director and organization, losing you in the crowd and losing your ability to influence your manager and team. Thus, it’s worth your entire team’s time to complete the poll. If you’re going to spend all that time, why not use it to drive the changes you seek and protect the aspects you love? How? Read on.

Eric Aside

While companies don’t rely only on polls to measure employee sentiment and activity, answering the employee poll is one of the few times you can provide direct, targeted feedback anonymously on things you care about and things that impact the entire company.

Let me ask you a few questions

The most important thing to understand about comprehensive employee polls is that they measure multiple aspects of your employment: your manager, your VP and VP’s leadership team, your CEO and CEO’s leadership team, your compensation and retention, and a variety of corporate initiatives (such as inclusion or engineering systems). If you love your manager but hate your VP (or vice versa), you want to ensure your appreciation and your anger are directed appropriately.

Unfortunately, many polls don’t explicitly state which questions align with which measures. However, you can infer this information from the heading above each set of questions. If the heading says something like, “These questions refer to your manager and workgroup,” then those questions are measuring your manager. If the heading says, “These questions refer to your VP and leadership team,” then the questions measure your VP (sometimes the poll will even mention your VP’s name). If the heading says, “These questions are about inclusion,” that’s a pretty good hint.

Pay attention to the headings. If you like your manager, give positive answers in the workgroup section, even if you’re in a bad mood that day. Don’t blame your manager for overall poor compensation or benefits—save that for the compensation and retention section. If you hate your VP, give negative answers in the VP leadership section, even if you’re having a good day. Remember, the poll is anonymous. No one is going to carefully review each person’s response to sort out what they really meant—they can’t because replies are aggregated. You need to direct your feedback carefully to the appropriate area.

Eric Aside

For more on changing organizational issues, read Culture clash.

These go to eleven

Most poll questions use a harsh five-point scale where 5 is “fine/good,” 4 is “meh/okay,” 3 is “bad,” 2 is “really bad,” and 1 is a “crisis.” There is no option to rate something or someone as “outstanding.” Outstanding is when everyone responds that something is fine/good.

Sometimes you feel strongly about an issue (good or bad), and sometimes you don’t. If you’re happy or fine with how things are in a particular area, give those questions a 5. Save lower scores for areas you wish would improve. A 4 is appropriate for “this is okay but could be better.” A 3 is suitable for “this is truly broken but not enough to make me leave.” A 2 is fitting for “this is a sh-t show that makes me want to leave.” And 1 is right for “this has me searching for a better job.”

Remember, employee polls have a harsh scale. Avoid diluting your impact by overusing low scores. Save low scores for things you really want to see changed.

Eric Aside

For more on dealing with poor management, read Management malady.

Now, you listen to me

Employee polls typically allow for a few long-form comments. Sometimes they ask about a particular area. Sometimes you get to choose the topic area. Sometimes they are just wide open (“Other comments?”).

Save your long-form comments for high praise or serious critique. Write with passion and be quotable. Your management often quotes long-form poll comments when arguing for change. Those quotes have outsized influence. You’ll see them in presentations and speeches. Make your words and time meaningful by writing about your most passionate topics.

Eric Aside

For more about writing, read Writing for readers.

I hear you

After a few weeks, the poll will close, the answers will be aggregated and analyzed for trends, and your management will receive the results. If you are a manager and enough of your team submitted a response, you will see the aggregate scores for your team.

If your team paid attention to the headings and used low scores judiciously, your poll scores should be consistent, clear, and actionable. However, employees often bleed their feelings across areas or are harsher than they intend. You may also have outlier employees who skew the results. In these cases, your poll scores may be difficult to understand and act upon effectively. A nice solution is to present your poll scores to your team without judgment (transparency builds trust), and then ask a well-respected team member to facilitate a conversation about the issues people have after you and other managers leave the meeting. The team member then anonymizes and summarizes the results and sends them to the entire team.

Once you understand your poll results, you’ll want to share an action plan with your team. Your action plan should summarize what people like and want to keep and list the top areas to improve. Each improvement area should have one or more actions you and your team will take to correct it. Send your action plan to your team along with your poll results, and go over it in detail during your next staff meeting.

Here are some common improvement areas and associated corrective actions.

  • Insufficient time is spent on employee and career development.
    • We’ll have a day of learning once a month dedicated to employee development.
    • Each month, every team member will have a one-on-one with their manager dedicated to career growth.
  • I’m not excited to come to work, I’m not utilized well, and I don’t feel free to try new things.
    • We’ll assign everyone ownership of one or more critical impact areas.
    • We’ll ensure everyone has a backup for the areas they own—spreading knowledge, generating new expertise, and allowing team members to take vacation or time off without worry.
    • We’ll encourage participation in hackathons and proof-of-concept work in areas that may not yet be mission-critical.
  • I don’t feel included, valued, respected, and heard.
    • We’ll acknowledge each person’s views and ideas as vital to our shared success, ensure every team member feels comfortable and respected, support one another, and check in when anyone seems left out or withdrawn.
    • We’ll use “raise your hand” in all online and in-person meetings to ensure everyone gets a chance to contribute.

Remember that there’s always room for improvement. Having disappointing scores in a few areas is expected and a great opportunity to re-recruit your staff and develop your own management skills. What’s important is not subpar scores but how you respond to them.

Eric Aside

For more on responding to issues, read I messed up and Bring out your dead: Postmortems.

Apathetic is pathetic

It does take a while to answer employee polls, but doing so is worth the effort in order to represent yourself accurately, keep what you like, and improve what you don’t. Ensure your views are clear and understood by reading the headings of each poll section and directing your praise or vitriol to the appropriate area. Use low scores judiciously for your most critical concerns, and remember the harsh five-point scale tops out at “fine/good” (not “outstanding”). Be passionate and quotable in your long-form comments—doing so helps your views get noticed and drives change. Your manager should see poll results as an opportunity to grow and improve, sending you the full results for transparency and providing an action plan to keep what you like and correct what you don’t.

You could think that answering the poll is a waste of time, generates empty management talking points, and perpetuates the present while placating the proletariat. Having sat in many high-level management meetings, I can tell you that polls freak out management. Sometimes it takes years to change deeply ingrained habits, and sometimes action plans get derailed. But management cares about poll numbers, and they do drive change.

Help you and your teammates be heard. Answer the poll in a way that maximizes your impact, and then hold your managers accountable for following through. If doing all this is insufficient, you can vote with your most powerful appendages—your feet.

Eric Aside

Special thanks to Irada Sadykhova, Bob Zasio , and James Waletzky for providing valuable feedback on the first draft of this month’s column.

Want personalized coaching on this topic or any other challenge? Schedule a free, confidential call. I provide one-on-one career coaching with an emphasis on underrepresented, midcareer software professionals. Find out more at Ally for Onlys in Tech.

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