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How Moderating Focus Groups Has Made Me A Better Manager

Focus-group moderators patiently draw out respondents' attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and reactions. Managers should, too.

How Moderating Focus Groups Has Made Me A Better Manager

[Photo: LeeTorrens/iStock]

I recently dusted off my focus-group–moderator shoes in order to run a few sessions on behalf of a big client. As I was preparing, I found myself jotting down a quick script with ground rules to help things go smoothly—things like:

Be honest—you won’t hurt my feelings. I want to hear from everyone. You can’t all talk at the same time. If you dominate the conversation, I might ask you to take a cookie break.

I also sketched out a second list of guidelines for myself, widely practiced moderating techniques that would help make sure I left with valuable, actionable feedback from the participants.

Reviewing these notes, it struck me that these moderating techniques also double as effective management tactics. A successful focus group is all about building rapport, getting feedback, and capturing a deep understanding of how the group feels and thinks. Managers likewise need to build strong relationships with their teams, and should care about uncovering their underlying thoughts and motivations.

With these shared objectives in mind, here's a look at five things effective managers can learn from a well-run focus group.

1. Don't Skip The Warm-Up

Good focus groups usually start with an icebreaker to let members learn more about one another. The activities and topics involved are safe, and they're meant to knock down some of the barriers between people. To improve their own team dynamics, managers should also invest in helping their teams get to know each other better. Even for teams that have worked together a lot, a quick warm-up at the start of a meeting might be a smart idea.

In their book The Happy Employee, Julia McGovern and Susan Shelly advocate not only making an effort to learn about employees’ personal lives, but also—as focus-group moderators do—using that knowledge to show you care about them and are interested in what they can contribute.

2. Let Them Do The Talking

You’ll never know what your team members think unless you give them a chance to tell you. Moderators listen during focus groups a good 90% of the time, asking broad questions to guide the conversation and probing questions to clarify details that are unclear. Managers should likewise listen more than they speak—it’s the most powerful way to understand what’s really on employees’ minds.

3. Ask, Don’t Tell

Good moderators avoid stating ideas directly—"You said that the new call center process was confusing"—or "leading the witness": "I’m going to show you this amazingly awesome new call center process." Instead, they ask participants to state things in their own words. And when asked a question, moderators often answer, "What do you think?"

In her book Smart Tribes, Christine Comaford explains how managers often inhibit their employees’ development by giving away solutions instead of letting them find their own ways of resolving challenges. Managers should instead meet their employees' requests for help with questions to guide them toward their own alternatives. Eventually, they'll learn to anticipate those questions and, rather then presenting managers with problems, will start showing up with their proposed solutions already in hand.

4. Hear From Everybody

There’s always one overzealous focus-group participant who will dominate the entire conversation if left unchecked. Moderators always need to make sure to get feedback from everyone in the room, not just the loudest person.

Similarly, managers have to be careful that they’re actively interacting with everyone on their teams. Not everyone is at ease with being outspoken, but their opinions are equally important. Since you can’t give your most vocal employees "cookie breaks," though, managers should simply seek out other opportunities (even if they aren't in a full-group setting) to solicit feedback from everybody—including those who usually hang back.

5. Keep Everyone Honest

Successful moderators genuinely want to hear it all—the good and the bad—so they simply listen without judgment. Too often, managers aren't comfortable hearing less-sunny observations. Indeed, negative feedback is often as uncomfortable to share as it is to hear, so it's a manager’s obligation to create a safe environment for honest discourse.

As a manager, this means keeping your emotions in check. But it’s about more than just avoiding defensiveness when receiving negative feedback. You also need to cultivate an environment that encourages all types of sharing. Employees should feel welcome to toss around ideas and ask questions about the team's direction and their place within it.

Focus-group moderators aim to patiently draw out respondents' attitudes, feelings, beliefs, and reactions. This feedback is typically used to improve a product, service, or experience. But the same techniques and principles can help boost a team's performance, productivity, and engagement, too.


Brooke Niemiec is chief marketing officer at Elicit, where she leads a team of researchers and marketing strategists to evolve the company's actionable intelligence platform.

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