When it comes to survey data analysis and strategy, there’s a fundamental truth: numbers alone rarely tell the full story. After recently completing a survey and focus group project for a construction company, I was reminded of the value of probing behind the numbers before developing action plans.
In a recent project, we were probing low scores on communication and engagement surveys that were conducted a month apart. Here are some surprising results from the surveys and the reason behind each that were discovered through focus groups.
The result: Despite frequent communication about new projects being pursued and contracts won, only 52% of employees felt well or very well informed about the topic of business development.
The why: The focus groups clarified that employees were missing listings of which projects were lost, along with a lessons-learned explanation that could be applied to future proposals.
The result: The safety department had low scores on “everyone pulling their weight.”
The why: It turned out that the safety department works well as a team themselves. Their issue was that the supervisors and managers on project sites weren’t partnering well with them by making sure employees followed safety rules when the safety managers weren’t present.
The result: Another department had a very low score on receiving recognition or praise from their supervisor within the last month.
The why: While this score turned out to be accurate, it was also true that these managers didn’t feel the need to get regular performance feedback. They were very senior, very experienced, with long service at the company — and they knew they were doing a great job.
If wrong assumptions are made about the reasons behind low scores, our solutions will not likely improve the numbers we see the following year. What follows are a few other examples from other projects where focus groups have helped steer clear of incorrect assumptions.
Typical at Other Companies May Be Atypical at Yours
A telecommunication company’s engagement survey asked three typical questions used to create an engagement index:
- Being proud to work at the company
- Wanting to stay employed at the company five years from now
- Recommending the company as an employer to friends and family
While the first two index questions had very high scores, the last one had a very low score.
Focus groups explained that because of the industry it was in, there were always several layoffs each year as technology evolved. Typically those with the least seniority were let go first. While most employees themselves felt highly engaged and safe from being laid off, they didn’t want friends and family to leave another stable job only to face being let go in a year or two.
We recommended that the third engagement question be eliminated from calculating the engagement index because it had nothing to do with current employees’ personal engagement at the company.
Understanding Audience Behaviors
When I worked in HR communication consulting, an aerospace client had older employees investing in their 401(k) plan contrary to the advice provided in our communications: the closer to retirement, the more they should diversify and not invest in one stock. However, most employees 55 years old and up were invested 100% in the company’s own stock.
We scheduled focus groups to determine how to improve employees’ knowledge about investment choices. It turned out that these employees understood very well what they should do. They invested as they did not for a lack of knowledge, but because of an attitude. The company was having sluggish sales but resisted conducting layoffs. These employees believed they were showing reciprocal loyalty to the company by investing in its low-performing stock — even though they were losing money.
The investment behavior changed only after communications addressed their attitude, redefining how employees at that age could show loyalty without destroying their retirement nest egg.
Pre-Survey Focus Groups Can Fine-tune Questions Asked
I’m currently conducting focus groups with another client in advance of finalizing their communication survey to ensure we include questions about topics of great interest to employees. For example, we’ve already learned that while the company does a good job of announcing new hires, what these employees need more is listings of those departing and who to contact in their absence so that workflow can continue uninterrupted.
We’ve also learned that we need to ask questions separately about several different types of Town Halls. Some of them are outstanding and others aren’t even watched because of a major time zone difference between HQ and their own country.
Survey and behavior metrics are key to being able to track improvements over time, but using focus groups to understand the reasons behind the numbers is just as important in developing the right strategies and making a difference.
Unlocking Insights for Lasting Strategies
Before you start building action plans after your next survey, prioritize uncovering the reasons beneath the data. Remember that what’s standard elsewhere might be unique to your context, and focus groups can offer a window into an audience’s knowledge, attitudes and behavior. Ultimately, understanding the why behind the numbers is essential for effective decision-making and lasting impact. Numbers might lay the foundation for your planning, but the insights from focus groups will ensure you build the right structure on top of it.
Dive deeper into the world of research and measurement in Angela Sinikas' chapter in "The IABC Guide for Practical Business Communication: A Global Standard Primer." Stay at the forefront of essential business communication strategies by ordering your copy today
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Angela Sinickas, ABC, IABC Fellow
Angela Sinickas, ABC, IABC Fellow, is the CEO of Sinickas Communications, Inc., a communication research and measurement firm. Their clients include over 25% of the Forbes largest 100 global companies, as well as NGOs, government agencies and non-profits. Angela has worked with clients in 32 countries. Among her numerous industry awards are 22 IABC Gold Quills, being named PR News’ Research Expert of the Year in 2016 and her firm being named Boutique Agency of the year by IABC in 2015.