Focus Groups

Engaging Employees via Focus Groups

The most challenging part of the employee engagement process is moving from having survey results in hand to deciding what actions to take. The survey data and analyses identify the most impactful issues (i.e. key drivers), as well as which issues employees view least favourably. The written comments provide additional insights as to why employees feel the way they do and very often include some extremely good ideas about possible solutions. Employee focus groups can provide yet another valuable source of input to better understand selected issues and harness the best thoughts of employees regarding possible solutions or ways to improve.

The basic concept of focus groups is to avoid putting a tall stack of problems in senior leader inboxes with no solutions. It’s much better to place a short stack of reasonably fleshed out issues in those inboxes and a very tall stack of possible ideas for action. This also can be a very effective way to engage employees in moving from results to action so that senior leaders are not embarking on that journey alone. The following captures the basic steps in that process and pinpoints where focus groups occur in the sequence of events.

Focus Group Composition and Purpose

Ideally, an employee focus group should consist of no more than 10 to 12 participants. If the group is much larger than that, it becomes difficult to facilitate. Participants should be selected largely on a random basis. However, if certain employees are known to be very shy and unlikely to speak up, or others are very dominant to the point of making it unlikely that others will have a chance to participate, they should be excluded from participating.

The exact number and composition of the employee focus groups should be driven by the data, the topics to be discussed and organizational logistics. For example, if the topics are broad organization-wide issues, such as the organizational culture, a mix of employees across divisions/departments/sites might work very well. Alternatively, if the issues selected for discussion are more localized, the groups also could be localized. Some organizations will conduct both types - i.e., some site-specific groups, as well as some mixed cross-organizational groups.

Capturing the Discussion

The following document is an example of a discussion capture sheet. It is a very simple and straightforward way of capturing the two key aspects of the group’s discussion for each topic. Once a topic has been selected by the group, the first goal is to have an open, free-flowing discussion of the topic and to capture the thoughts of the participants.

For example, if organizational culture is the selected topic, the participants could expand on how they feel about the culture, how they would characterize it, what adjectives would they use, do they have concerns about it, etc. Once they have had an opportunity to expound on the issue, the next and most important part of the discussion is to brainstorm as many ideas as they can about possible solutions and/or ways the topic could be improved. All the usual brainstorming rules should apply at this point - i.e., every idea is a good idea and no critiquing of ideas is allowed. This can be the most challenging part of the discussion since it is much easier for participants to talk about a problem than to brainstorm possible solutions. However, the brainstormed ideas are what senior leaders and/or higher-level managers need the most - i.e., a mountain of suggestions to consider and evaluate for action.

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