The privilege of running a focus group

July 30th, 2018

Why focus groups are a great reminder of the privileged role we play inside organisations.

Whenever I run a focus group, I’m reminded of why I do internal communication for a job. It’s one of the few opportunities I have to spend face-to-face time with employees, and over the last couple of years I’ve come to regard it as a privilege.

I can’t believe there’s many jobs where a room of strangers open up and share their thoughts and feelings about such a big aspect of their lives. It’s tempting to think that focus groups are simply a licence for employees to have a good moan about email overload, and yes that does come up, and sometimes it can be a pretty uneventful hour, but often the discussion will go far deeper than that.

I’ve been in emotionally charged rooms where people have been worried they might lose their job, tired of not being appreciated for going over and above, or angry they can’t support customers properly due to a lack of information and support.

It can be easy to get emotionally involved, especially when people are telling you personal stories and of course your immediate response is that you want to help. But it’s important to help them in the right way. As an independent consultant, my job is to not judge but to listen, and get to the root of why people feel the way they do.

This often comes from the work that goes on around the focus group such as interviews, desk research and surveys to ensure I get the whole picture. Because, while people’s feelings are valid and must be listened to, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an accurate reflection of how much a business values its employees.

A common finding is the lack of ‘why’. Perception is so powerful and if employees only have the ‘what’ they will make up the ‘why’ for themselves. Bringing together why employees feel the way they do, with the evidence around decisions that were made and how they were communicated, you can, from an external perspective, spot where the issues arose.

Having the opportunity to identify these issues and make recommendations based on them is hugely rewarding. Afterall, you’ve met some of the people it will directly benefit and they, and their stories, will stay with you for a long time after.

And it’s not to say that businesses, or internal comms teams, are the bad guys in the focus group scenario. I’ve often heard high praise for internal comms teams and the issues are often far bigger than the IC function. Most people also appreciate that the business is taking steps to listen to them and act on their feedback. But that last bit is key. Never underestimate what it takes for people to give up their time and share feelings and experiences in the expectation change will happen. And if it doesn’t, it will be very hard to win their trust back. It’s essential findings and recommendations are shared with employees, and that actions are taken, or if certain things aren’t possible, it’s explained why.

If you’re thinking of running an audit or focus groups, consider if you have time and resource to act on the output straight away, ensure stakeholders are bought in, have put aside egos and are prepared to hear some potentially difficult truths. And consider external help. If you want to truly hear what employees think, you need to provide a safe space for them to speak freely and anonymously, without fear of causing offence or consequences.

In amongst all the important strides we’re taking as an industry around strategy and measurement, focus groups serve as a great reminder of why we all got into internal communication in the first place – making a difference to people. And what a privilege that is.

Top five qualities needed for running a focus group

• Listening – to understand, not listening to respond.
• Facilitation – ensuring everyone has a chance to speak and keeping the conversation on track.
• Impartiality – withholding judgement and making recommendations based on more than emotion and instinct.
• Empathy – people need to feel comfortable opening up to you and trust that you’ll reflect their views fairly.
• Curiosity – you need to be interested in people and have a desire to understand them and what makes them tick.



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“Helen’s passion for her profession shines through very clearly and she manages to combine her deep knowledge of internal communications with a mix of pragmatism and fresh thinking. She is a delight to work with and has a high level of integrity.”

Richard Fitzmaurice, TMF Group