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Why senior managers should be facilitating focus groups

Blair McPherson - former Director, Author and Blogger

The staff survey didn’t help understand what was bothering staff, what they really thought about the changes or illicit any ideas for how things should be done differently.

The feed back was contradictory, often prompting senior managers to ask what do you think was meant by this comment or to dismiss comments with “they would say that wouldn’t they.“ If there was a message it was an uncomfortable one that employees did not trust senior managers. What was needed were some focus groups to prob a little deeper and understand a little more.

The first mistake was for senior managers to think they could facilitate focus groups. Nothing useful came out of these sessions largely because staff were reluctant to speak their mind in front of the bosses, especially as any comments were likely to be critical of the policies and initiatives of the person chairing the meeting. Independent facilitators were engaged. Their brief, using the findings of the staff survey as a starting point find out what staff are thinking and feeling. Come up with recommendations to address the distrust issue.

A random cross section of staff were selected by the independent facilitators who gave assurances to those selected that management would not have access to the names of those in the focus groups nor would any comments be attributed to individuals.

The report from the independent facilitators stated that whilst most staff had confidence in their immediate manager they did not have the same confidence in senior management. This was illustrated by poor communication, the feeling was their line manager knew no more than them and that senior management had a hidden agenda. Frequent reference was made to senior management saying ,”no decision had been made” only for the local news paper to quote a board member or “reliable source” confirming controversial plans, including changes in working practices, relocations and possible redundancies.

A significant minority complained about harassment and bullying by their manager or favouritism in the allocation of work and opportunities to go on courses.  The general view was senior managers were out of touch and yet felt they knew best because of their (out dated) experience or professional status.

Senior managers on receiving the anonymous feedback were dismissive of the process saying it simply gave an audience to a small number of disgruntled employees, that it was no surprise that in a period of uncertainty and change some employees would feel anxious, that in order to improve efficiency and reduce costs/make saving unpopular decisions had to be made. Of course in any organisation there were some poor managers but all complaints about harassment, bullying and favouritism were treated seriously by HR and senior management. Senior management also questioned whether the facilitators were in a position to explain how decisions were made in the organisation and why managers were being truthful in saying no decision had yet been made and why it might not be possible to keep staff informed of “ discussions “.

As commissioner of the focus groups and liaison with the independent facilitators HR  were caught between a defensive senior management who hated the report , market research professionals who considered the clients hatred of the findings validated the process and confirmed that the issue was that senior managers did not want to listen to staff. And a staff group who entered the process in good faith and expected to see an out come.

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