"The greatest happiness is to know the source of unhappiness."
Imagine coming to work one Monday morning and finding your most talented and tenured employee waiting in your office.
Before you have a moment to settle in, she places a letter on your desk and tells you directly, "This is my two-week notice."
Simply from how she’s chosen to deliver the news, (quick, to the point and well strategized) you instinctively know there’s no way of saving her. Flashing through your mind are all the critical projects she’s responsible for, and the clear awareness that it will take months before someone new can be brought up to her skill level.
"This comes as quite a shock to me," you lament. "Can I ask where you’re going?"
You grimace when you learn she’s headed to a key competitor—and that her reasons for leaving relate mostly to feeling unappreciated.
"I’ve been unhappy here for quite some time," she reveals. "You’ve been so busy and distracted. I can’t recall the last time you acknowledged all the extra things I do around here, or even checked in to see how I was doing. The truth is I want to feel I’m special to you and to this organization, and I haven’t felt like that in a long while."
After hitting you straight in the heart with those piercing arrows, your soon-to-be former employee stands up saying it’s time she got back to work. She cordially shakes your hand, says she’s sorry for leaving you in the lurch—and suggests it might be wise to learn how everyone else on your team is feeling.
A Shared Leadership Pain Point
This scenario, of course, is the nightmare of just about every person who holds a managerial position the world over. Sudden turnover of great employees is inherently disruptive to a team, not to mention expensive and time-consuming to repair. But what puts salt in the wound of a resignation like this one is the knowledge that it could have been prevented. With her intentional parting words, this disheartened employee couldn’t have been clearer: Had she been made to feel more highly valued, she wouldn’t be leaving.
What If You’d Had An Early Warning Of Her Unhappiness?
Let’s imagine now that it’s six months earlier—and you’ve just received an anonymous note from someone on your team. The message says that one of your employees has grown unhappy, feels neglected, and wishes you would recognize the extra time she’s putting in to meeting your deadlines. The note writer says she, too, feels you need to do a better job of connecting with all your employees and wanted to make you were aware before anyone quit.
Now, if you felt any pain or discomfort in losing your fictitious employee a moment ago, the idea that there might be a way of turning back time—and saving that person—has to fill you up with great hope. With this advance notice, you could do some immediate and very powerful damage control:
Promptly reach out to your team and apologize for the lack of attention and care you’ve been giving them. Acknowledging that you received anonymous feedback that the team was in distress, you could reassure employees how much they matter to you and announce that you’ll soon be scheduling one-on-one meetings so you can address any and all personal concerns.
And, based upon all your subsequent and authentic follow-through on these commitments, you’d inevitably keep your entire team intact.
A much better outcome, wouldn’t you say?
Ensuring Leaders Have Many More Happy Endings Like These
The belief that a large percentage of employee turnover is entirely preventable is an insight entrepreneur David Niu had while running two startup businesses early in his career. More than once he suffered through the sick feeling that surfaced when a highly regarded employee unexpectedly gave notice. On all those occasions, he wished he had a barometer on how that employee had been feeling—before an issue festered and resulted in them leaving.
Very recently, Niu developed a very clever way of giving leaders that exact kind of advance warning—a system that works very much like the anonymous note I just described.
After hearing from CEOs all over the globe that employee retention and contentment had become their greatest priority, he invented a simple but profoundly useful technology that teams in companies like Amazon, Ticketmaster, GlaxoSmithKline, JP Morgan, and GE have quickly embraced. In just nine months, 300 organizations have signed up to use it.
Intrigued to learn how his new tool, TinyPulse, increases workplace happiness and thus employee retention, I recently met with Niu in Seattle. I spent the day visiting the company's clients, meeting with their CEOs, senior managers, and employees. What I discovered is that the methodology there is extraordinarily effective simply because it influences leaders to more consistently care for, develop, listen to, and appreciate employees—the practices known to have the greatest impact on inspiring human engagement and loyalty.
How TinyPulse Works
It remains common practice in most organizations to conduct an employee satisfaction survey (usually with 50-plus questions) once a year. Believing this approach is too broad, unfocused—and that too little ever gets done with the feedback—Niu chose to provide leaders with a steady "pulse" on employee happiness. As he told me, "Rarely have firms had access to an ongoing heartbeat—how their organization is doing or how specific groups are performing at any given moment in time."
Every week, employees are e-mailed a survey that asks just one question. While the questions change each time, they almost always sample sentiments around morale, benefits, retention, and career progression. Many of the questions are fun and evocative (e.g., "If our company were a fortune cookie, what message would it say?"). The only question routinely repeated is perhaps its most important: "On a scale of 1 to 10, how happy are you at work?"
TinyPulse manages the entire process so clients never know in advance what question will be asked and distributes results to company leaders just hours after each survey window is closed.
Niu, who’s a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley and has an MBA from Wharton, is convinced that employee engagement is almost entirely driven by how people are made to feel in their jobs. Consequently, he’s used both heart and mind to design the unique TinyPulse process.
Here is why TinyPulse is so compelling and effective:
1. Feedback is provided anonymously.
"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth."
Niu wanted to encourage employees to fully express their feelings and concerns, and believed anonymity would ensure they felt no risk of pushback or retaliation. According to Forest Key, CEO of travel industry startup, Buuteeq, allowing employees to remain anonymous leads to different and far more valuable kinds of conversations.
"What we’re interested in isn’t who’s saying it, but rather what’s being said. By being anonymous, it encourages much more truthful, forthcoming feedback than I’d ever get by asking someone in person, ‘How are we doing?’ ‘How’s the culture?’ Sometimes people will disguise themselves using broken English to ensure their candid remarks are never traced back to them. But we get unvarnished truth from this."
Anonymous feedback also ensures every employee is given an equal vote on every question that’s asked. No one person’s feedback is given greater weight; the loudest voice can never drown out the others.
When leaders first launch TinyPulse, they have a common fear that employees will use the technology to throw rocks at them. While some comments can be raw, leaders are often surprised by the constructive and even praising feedback they receive.
2. Survey results are shared with employees.
It’s a gutsy move to ask employees "How valued do you feel at work" and to then disclose that several people aren’t currently feeling the love. But Niu insists the constant polling would be disingenuous were the results never released.
"Our philosophy is that it’s incumbent upon the leader to share it," he told me. "The choice by companies to use TinyPulse inherently signals an organization’s inclination toward transparency and sharing more information versus less." While managers always have the discretion to withhold some data, "we tell CEOs it’s better to put it out there and acknowledge that some people aren’t happy. These are great opportunities to remind employees that you’re always reviewing strategy and culture; the whole reason you ask these questions is to give them a voice."
3. Employees get prompt resolutions on concerns.
We can all recall times when managerial decisions affected us personally—and negatively—yet felt uncomfortable voicing concern. According to the TinyPulse methodology, leaders respond to all feedback they receive (without knowing to whom they’re responding).
"When managers reply this way," says Niu, "people know immediately that they’ve been heard and their feedback is taken seriously. And having an influential voice like this is a basic human need that’s really important to people. Very often, employees get a better understanding of intended solutions or even why the business decision will go unchanged." Clarity is also the antidote to ambiguity—a known cause of employee discontent.
4. Cheers for peers
At the end of every survey, employees are prompted to think about coworkers who helped them or who otherwise excelled in the week. They’re then encouraged to openly or anonymously praise them on TinyPulse.
Recognition from coworkers tends to have a highly motivational affect on people, even though managers also use the technology to acknowledge high performance. When teams meet to review TinyPulse results, hearing these praisings read out loud (as I witnessed) has a surprisingly inspiring impact.
5. It strengthens leadership effectiveness.
Amy Balliett, CEO at Killer Infographics, told me that there have been many times when she was terrified to read TinyPulse responses admitting, "ignorance is bliss."
"But TinyPulse has forced me to face my problems head on that I would have easily ignored with all the work on my plate. It’s also forced me to reconsider my priorities as a business owner and focus on building a company with good values."
Michael Dougherty, a senior manager at Amazon, also is convinced his performance as a manager has been greatly sharpened. "It’s a constant reminder not to take your eye off the most important part of your job as a leader, which is to take care of the people you serve. On a more detailed level, it’s a reminder not to get complacent or self-satisfied with averages. If even one person in my organization is unhappy, that’s a problem. TinyPulse helps me to see that."
6. It makes people happy and engaged in their jobs.
Millennial and gen-X workers fill the halls at Amazon, and Dougherty believes they’re having an enormous influence on shaping workplace management. "Many people feel deeply entitled to a satisfying job, where they’re paid well, their boss is amazing, and work is fulfilling. So I’ve learned that people are always asking themselves, ‘What’s in it for me right now?’ "
To that end, I asked several employees at different companies whether TinyPulse has made any significant difference in their lives or their loyalty at work. What Dean Desilet, a baby boomer who's an employee at Buuteeq, told me best summarizes the collective feedback: "The TinyPulse process makes me happy. I feel better. It makes me feel included, respected, and empowered. I’ve worked in great big companies where none of us felt valued. We’d see time and time again how workers were replaced without any sense of loss for the person who’d just left. That told all of us who remained that we were seen as a commodity, not a human being."
Sample TinyPulse Questions:
(On a scale of 1-10):
- How happy are you at work?
- How fair and competitive do you think our benefits are here?
- How would you rate the match between your personal values and the organization’s values?
- How seriously and effectively does your company take your feedback and suggestions?
- Now that your firm has been using TinyPulse for awhile, how would you rate the way it has been acting on employee feedback?
- Is your promotion and career path clear to you?
- Do you have all the tools you need to be successful in your job?
- My role here has real purpose and is more than just a job.
- Do you feel you’re in control of your career path and progressing in your personal and professional development in our company?
- If you would give notice and leave our organization, what would your primary reason be?
- If your company were an animal, what would it be?
- What is your favorite memory of working here so far and how did it make you feel?
[Image: Flickr user Guian Bolisay]