Do You Have a Best Friend at Work?

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London, England; photo by the author

I’m a big believer in soliciting feedback from employees but struggled for a long time to find a methodology that balanced ease of response (spoiler alert: most people don’t love completing surveys) with diagnostic utility (I want actionable feedback, preferably with widely available benchmarks). I love one-question surveys like Net Promoter Score but haven’t gotten useful results applying them to employee satisfaction.

That’s why I was so excited to read this post by Tom Tunguz. In it Tunguz recounted his reaction to reading Fred Kofman’s Conscious Business, which includes a passage on Gallup’s Q12 Employee Engagement Survey. Finally I had found an employee feedback tool that met my criteria:

  • Answering 12 yes/no questions is a low bar to clear (I’ve now administered the survey twice; both times had a 100% response rate and the maximum time to complete was under 3 minutes)
  • The questions cover a broad spectrum of topics that are important to me as a leader (as Tunguz summarizes, “communication clarity, mission, shared values, respect, community, and teamwork”)
  • Significant benchmark data is available; according to Gallup, “from 1996 to 2012, nearly 25 million employees in almost 3 million workgroups from 195 countries” completed the survey

I quickly disseminated the survey to my team (I used SurveyMonkey which, in addition to being one of my favorite products, is Smartling’s first customer). My management team and I were pleased with the results; on the whole, the survey showed strong employee satisfaction while highlighting isolated areas upon which we could improve.

In hindsight, I should have predicted that one of the 12 questions would stand out like a sore thumb:

Q10. Do you have a best friend at work?

A large enough number of people responded “no” to be concerning. I would have asked around about why people felt this way, but it proved to be completely unnecessary: the question was all everyone talked about for days. The following week, when I walked the team through the results, I got a (polite) earful about it: I only have one best friend and he/she is from childhood; work isn’t a place to have a best friend; and so on. At the same time, just about everyone said they liked their colleagues and had become extremely close with many of them.

I defended the question, arguing that the “best” qualifier set a higher standard and was therefore a stronger predictor of employee satisfaction.

The results were unchanged the second time I ran the survey, as was the team’s reaction. Someone—we’ll call him Nick—said:

A best friend means something different to everyone. I know people who claim in every Instagram post that they’re “out with their besties” and there’s 20 people in the photo. Other people say they have only one best friend, and it’s their mom or their cat. I think it’s more important to know that people have someone at work who they consider a friend in general.

Well put.

Stubbornly, I defended the question again. Who was I to question Gallup’s more than 20 years of experience?

The following week I relayed my experience to a trusted advisor. He said that he, too, felt the question was flawed: if so many people were answering it in a manner contradictory to how they felt about their job, what was the value in asking the question in the first place?

Hearing this was eye-opening. I’d focused so much on defending Gallup’s use of “best” that I hadn’t realized it rendered the results meaningless. Nick’s comment—particularly the last sentence—had been spot-on. Ironically, for someone who‘s bothered by people saying “very unique,” I’m not bothered by calling more than one person my best friend. I allowed my personal interpretation of the question to cloud my judgment.

I still believe there’s value in asking a question that gets at the strength of an employee’s bonds with his or her colleagues. We spend more time with them than we do with our families, so naturally these connections have a significant impact on our happiness and satisfaction at work.

Next time I’ll ask: Do you have a true friend at work?

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Chief Customer Officer at Brightflag. I write about issues relevant to and situations faced by SaaS companies as they scale.

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