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Culture Deep Dives and Focus Group Facilitation Ideas

I recently sat in on a focus group session on ‘culture’ that sought employees’ perspectives on the organization’s traits and thoughts on how to retain or strengthen the organization’s DNA.  The forums held across the organization are an attempt to gauge the role ‘culture’ plays on engagement and align employees based on an action plan.

The insights and the power of the forum impressed me. I wanted to pen down and share my views on effectively conducting such sessions.  Also articulate how communicators can gain from participating in these discussions or play an active role as observers.

Effective context setting: To begin, it is important to get a cross-section of individuals across roles, levels and tenure. Hand picking ‘vocal’ (those whom you know have strong opinions and are open to voice them) employees also helps. Include if possible, individuals who have experience or ongoing interactions with teams in other geographies. Prep for the conversation early. Share the background, the initiative’s objectives, the leadership commitment and how the organization benefits increases the participant’s comfort levels. Ask employees for their definition of culture – I discovered that the organization’s thinking may not completely match with their idea! At the end of the discussion, you are seeking insights and ideas that can trigger improvements to the engagement and culture.

Plugged In
Plugged In

Stay positive: You must be ready to hear ‘not so good news’ about the organization, internal groups, specific leaders or unpopular programs. Avoid reacting or getting defensive. Although the forum isn’t a ‘crib’ session, there might not be many other avenues for employees to let their feelings show. By being sensitive to employees’ views and staying neutral, you are also indicating your openness and maturity as a leader and facilitator.

Pause, confirm and proceed: I observed participants speaking from their ‘experience’ of how they perceived the organization. It is vital to know from where they were viewing ‘culture’. Understand their line of sight. For example, one individual explained in exasperation on the ‘slow and bureaucratic methods followed by the organization’ when he was referring to the ‘experience’ he faced with one internal team when he joined the organization. That one experience colored his impression of the entire group and office. So was it a substantial lead? Was it a pattern? Good to probe further.

Keep the discussion grounded: While facilitating, try to differentiate the wheat from the chaff. Avoid getting waylaid by ‘feedback on feedback’ – that is referencing a comment or a statement heard recently as a crutch to discuss a ‘culture’ issue.  For example, if one participant discusses ‘hierarchy’, there can be another who takes the thread further by adding their personal feedback to how they view it. Keep your ears open for sentences starting with ‘I heard this from…..’ or ‘My friend mentioned……’.  That diverts the course of the conversation. Allow participants to talk at their own pace instead of going ‘round robin’ which puts pressure on participants to share ‘something’ just to get over their turn! Identify a good note taker who can ascertain what each participant meant before penning it down on paper.

Share next steps: Very often the complaint is that we ‘take feedback but we don’t inform what is done with it’.  Before closing explain how this information will get sifted, who will be responsible and when there will be a report out to employees. Invite them to continue the dialogue and keep sharing feedback.  This helps to quell the ‘bad mouthing’ that often follows surveys when employees all their valuable inputs have been ignored. Summarize and ask for ways to improve such sessions.

As communicators, you will also hear cool ideas on how employees perceive internal communication and their recommendations to improve reach, understanding and frequency.  One suggestion which I found intriguing was the need to ‘incentivize’ communication specifically around large change management programs. Again, a ‘culture’ pointer – as compared to other geographies such as the States or EU, in India, I was told it helps to draw participants with more ‘what’s in it for me’ elements.

2 thoughts on “Culture Deep Dives and Focus Group Facilitation Ideas

  1. Hey Aniisu,
    Thanks for sharing your blog…. I didn’t know you wrote one. Interestign insights on the culture discussion. I’m sure in every organization it throws up surprises of different kinds. As you rightly said, its important to be open in listening and communicate back to the group about what the discussion will lead to.
    Look forward to reading more on Intraskope.


  2. 20 Sep 09

    Hello Aniisu,

    Thank you for sharing your views.

    I am myself conducting focus group interviews to identify culture related issues in organizations as part of my doctoral thesis.

    I find that in spite of all the methods to develop rapport, people are apprehensive of sharing information more so if they feel it is negative in nature and could be used against them if it gets conveyed by another participant in the group.

    I found that individual interviews (though time consuming) and a validated instrument if used prior to the focus group, where the outcomes of those are put to question give better results because then it even gets confirmed at times in a veiled manner.

    Should any of your colleagues want a culture audit be done (without any fees, but used for research purpose) and also be involved on how to do so, I would request you to ask that person to get in touch with me on my e-mail ID and I will follow up.

    Thanks once again and regards,

    Wg. Cdr. B. S. Mahal (Retd.)

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