The Tyranny of Focus Groups: We’ll Take the Heat For You

Focus Groups are a key component of an OD consultant’s world. The term might conjure up images of marketing research studies with tables of lively customers discussing a new soda flavor. In our world, where we use them to gather qualitative insights into organizations, they tend to look a little different. Whether I’m assessing an organization’s culture or examining a particular issue, I consistently find that:

  1. People need a designated space and time to talk (though they may not have realized it);
  2. No matter the problem, it’s someone else’s fault (though that person just happens to not be in the room); and
  3. People. Are. Frustrated.

I’ve worked with organizations where things were going well, the campers were happy and the future looked bright, and people were STILL frustrated.  There’s something about a conference room with a closed door and guarantee of confidentiality that opens the flood gates of workplace melancholy.

But I’m not complaining.  A client recently reminded me of something I learned in graduate school: negativity isn’t a bad thing for an organization, but apathy is.  As leaders you’d rather have a workforce that is ferociously pissed off over one that couldn’t care less. Negativity shows interest, energy and ultimately investment in making the organization great.

The trick, however, is pivoting that negative energy into positive change. A few thoughts from an OD perspective:

  • Avoid getting defensive by focusing on deep listening. Common reactions to staff feedback range from “That can’t possibly be about us!” to “Who said that?!” to just general hurt feelings. These reactions are very understandable but not constructive.  Part of being a good leader is really (like, really) listening to feedback without trying to find ways to prove the data wrong.  Remember there’s something broken in the system…not necessarily with you as a leader.
  • Follow through. There is no missed opportunity greater than not making change in the face of feedback from your people. You owe it to them to, at the very least, demonstrate that you heard them. Negativity can convert to apathy fast if people feel their efforts make things better by raising their voices were wasted. Maybe it’s not your style to indulge “complaints”. That’s fine, but your business will suffer for it.
  • Involvement. Be open to building the solution to stated problems together as a team.  Make sure the right people are at the table.

I think I’m a pretty nice person but wowza I’ve been yelled at, dumped on and complained to in focus groups. And this is what we do as consultants, and strangely we like it – in fact, we love it and all the challenges it presents.