Early in my career, I worked for a company that thought focus groups were the end-all-be-all of employee engagement. If we could get 8 or so of our 200 employees to dialogue and offer up their opinions for improvement, we thought we were really doing something special. What we often found was that when we took those suggestions and implemented them, they’d still fall flat because those few opinions were not representative of what the majority was really feeling or needed.
We couldn’t for the life of us figure out why these focus groups were not effective. What I later realized was that every time we solicited input, the same types of employees responded:
- those that were actively working to be noticed or promoted, or
- those that were looking for any and every chance to complain.
The majority of our employees were those that settled in the “middle” of our population…quiet, complacent, disinterested or skeptical. Our focus groups were giving us flawed or incomplete information because those that were vocal more than likely had agendas or self-serving interests instead of giving us insight into what was being discussed in the break rooms and patios. We needed a Focused Group, not a Focus Group, of individuals that were committed to putting their fingers on the pulse of employees and finding out what they want and need…and then doing something with the information that was obtained.
What is a Focused Group?
A Focused Group consists of hand-selected leaders. Not just managers, but people who are eager to usher in change. Leaders are the employees (frontline and Executive) that can listen and encourage truthful dialogue. They either already have or can accurately gauge the engagement temperature of the people that work around them. A Focused Group are those that are able to put individuals or groups at ease and make them feel comfortable enough to share their concerns. This Focused Group knows what makes employees tick, so that you’re not wasting your implementing things that the employees will not respond to.
Another reason for handpicking your braintrust has to do with trust. Depending on who is communicating the focus group effort (CEO, President, etc.), employees may feel obligated to participate, thus giving guarded or safe answers…if any at all for fear that the information is going to be used against them. If they are being asked by departments or individuals that have a reputation for not following through on projects or concerns, employees will assume that their feelings won’t be considered anyway, so why share. If they are being asked by people that they know are serious and people that wouldn’t get behind something unless it’s worthwhile, you will get some news that you can use.
Enlisting the services of dedicated and trusted employees that are about action gives watercooler insight and your initiative gain legs and creditability. More important than the ideas and concerns are the capabilities of these key individuals to put the plans into action. For solicited opinion to turn into real change, there must be people and plans in place and on the ready to ensure than our data doesn’t remain just that. A Focused Group of people will hold one another accountable to see this through.
Who should you reach out to to be a part of your Focused Group? What type of team do you need to assemble to gather ideas and put them in to motion? Here are a few suggestions.
- That manager that other managers look to for guidance and assistance.
- That employee that is always having his/her coworkers over to their home for events
- That leader that has only been there for a short period of time and has yet to be tainted
- The employee that never speaks up at meetings but you can tell they’re observing
- The employee that we think is trouble but only acts out because they’ve never been invited to participate in anything.
So yes, focus groups look and sound good. But in order for the needle to move and for change and hope to become a reality, we can no longer rely on appearance and rhetoric…we must involve Focused Groups of people that want to see the company move forward and prosper while enriching the experience of those that are helping to build it.