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To Find Out What Employees Are Really Thinking, Don’t Conduct a Survey; Do This Instead

Sure, survey data is impressive. But this information is much more valuable.

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BY Alison Davis - 30 Jul 2017

Employee focus group

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Do you need to understand what employees are really thinking?

Many leaders believe that the only way to assess employee opinions is to conduct a survey, often referred to as an "employee attitude survey" or an "employee engagement survey."

And although surveys can be valuable, there's a faster, easier and often more effective method of determining what employees think about a particular issue or how they feel about the organization overall.

That simple solution? Employee focus groups

You're probably familiar with the focus groups used in consumer research, but you may not realize that this qualitative research method can play a role internally as well.

On the surface, a focus group doesn't look much different than a meeting. But behind the seemingly casual conversation is more than 80 years of research science about how to best encourage participants to share their perspectives. And this proven qualitative research method can help when you need to know:

• Why employees are behaving in a certain way (for example, not following safety procedures or failing to enroll in a short-term disability program)

• What ideas employees might have for solving a problem or making a program successful

• Whether a proposed approach (for example, to introduce a new retirement program) will be well received by employees

• When communication has been successful, but you want to understand what to do next

• How employees really feel about an important topic, such as strategy, mission, values or a change initiative

And, even if you conduct an employee survey, you often wonder what's behind the numbers. So a focus group can help you solve the mystery of why employees answered survey questions the way they did. (For example, "75% of managers don't provide employees with feedback about their jobs").

Why seek employee feedback?

The answer is simple: The more you know, the more you can create solutions that meet employees' needs. And that helps you accomplish your objectives, whether you're the CEO, an HR professional, a communicator, an IT leader, or anyone running a program or leading an initiative.

Plus, this form of qualitative research (using discussion to understand why and how) is ideally suited for employee research, since the group dynamic replicates the collaborative environment of the workplace. Employees are accustomed to working together: They gather for meetings, they collaborate in teams, they huddle in a group to fix a machine or solve a problem. So they're comfortable with the interaction of the group experience.

But valid, actionable focus groups are not as simple as asking people you know to gather in a conference room and answer three or four casual questions. For your research to be valid, you must assemble objective, representative groups; prepare how the discussion will be conducted, so you have a consistent set of questions across groups; and have an experienced moderator who can encourage participation and candor.

If you'd like to learn more about focus groups, my colleague David Pitre has written extensively about the topic, including how to choose between a survey or focus groups and how to conduct a quick focus group study.

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