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Posted October 25, 2018

Employee Engagement Focus Groups Deliver Actionable Insights to Drive Improvement

Employee engagement can be a difficult nut to crack for many healthcare executives, especially when there are significant gaps between what leadership perceives to be true and what frontline staff report during annual employee engagement surveys. For years, Studer Group has coached the importance of post-survey action planning that includes accountability and frequent communication regarding improvement of any areas of concern revealed in the survey.

At Mary Greeley Medical Center in Ames, Iowa, CEO Brian Dieter has taken it one step further with the implementation of employee focus groups. The goal: Dive deeper into dissatisfiers identified by the employee engagement survey to get actionable insights to drive improvement.

The Impetus for Improvement

It all began in 2017 after Dieter and his senior leadership team were surprised by some of the results of the previous year’s survey. As they attempted to dig into the data, they realized that they didn’t have enough specific information to focus their efforts on what mattered to employees.

As an organization continually focused on the standards of the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (Mary Greeley is a two-time gold-level award winner for Iowa and currently working on their fourth national submission), the team was aware of a mail-order retail company located nearby that has received the Baldrige award twice. So, one evening after a board meeting, a few members of their team took a field trip to the neighboring business.

“We went there just to see what we could learn,” Dieter says. “But you couldn’t help but notice all the work they were doing around employee engagement.”

They discovered that the president himself met with small focus groups after each employee engagement survey to better understand the responses and learn more about employee perceptions of their work environment. Dieter knew then and there this was something he wanted to replicate at Mary Greeley.

Employee engagement is a critical competency for healthcare leaders today, according to Katie Oliva, one of the Studer Group coaches who works with the Mary Greeley team.

“You act differently when you’re engaged,” she says. “When I feel like a vital part of my organization, I’m going to give my all to meet our goals and deliver exceptional care.”

Soliciting Candid Feedback from Employees

At Mary Greeley, focus groups are chosen at random, but additional departmental sessions are conducted for any particularly concerning survey results. Dieter himself facilitates the session, and he says his primary goal is to ensure participants feel comfortable enough to provide candid feedback. He sits with the group rather than standing and sets ground rules up front to put everyone in the room at ease and assuage any fears they may have about punishment for speaking frankly.

“After implementing these focus groups, we reversed a non-favorable trend on the survey item ‘action was taken as a result of last year’s survey’,” Dieter says. In 2016, the organization scored at 42 percent and dropped to the mid-30s in 2017. By 2018, that same question had bounced back to 55 percent, an increase of 18 points over the previous survey.

Accountability and Communication

After the focus groups, Dieter meets with the appropriate leaders to brainstorm solutions based on the feedback he got during the sessions.

“You’re telling people you want to hear what they think. If you don’t act decisively and urgently on that information, you’ll lose any trust you’ve built with your team.”

- Brian Dieter, CEO of Mary Greeley Medical Center

“It is critical to have a plan for what you’ll do with the feedback you get,” Dieter says. “You’re telling people you want to hear what they think. If you don’t act decisively and urgently on that information, you’ll lose any trust you’ve built with your team.”

The Mary Greeley team uses Studer Group best practices to communicate with staff throughout the year regarding actions taken to improve on low-scoring employee engagement survey items. Communication methods like stoplight reports (charts that highlight items as red, yellow or green to denote status of implementation), employee forums and video updates ensure that all team members are kept up to date and understand that leaders are listening.

“When you have trust and good intentions, these focus groups can be a helpful tool for gathering the intel you need to overcome barriers to employee engagement,” Dieter says.

Tips for Holding Employee Engagement Focus Groups
  • Ask a prominent member of the c-suite to lead the sessions. It doesn’t have to be the CEO if there is another senior leader well-suited to host.
  • Keep numbers low -- about 10 people per focus group.
  • Choose participants at random to provide a heterogeneous sampling of perspectives.
  • Hold separate focus groups with individual departments that have low or confusing scores.
  • Include a representative from Human Resources to act as a scribe.
  • Offer simple, light refreshments to make the session feel more like a privilege than a chore.
  • Instruct the session facilitator to sit down rather than stand at the front. This makes the session feel more like a natural conversation than a lecture.
  • Use name tents at each seat and ask participants to introduce themselves at the start to ensure everyone knows each other.
  • Start with the “why.” Explain why they’ve been invited to the session and what you plan to do with the information you get.
  • Set expectations upfront and begin each session with clear ground rules:
    • What you say here, stays here. Ask everyone to pledge to keep feedback confidential.
    • There are no right or wrong answers.
    • Be respectful of your fellow participants. Everyone’s opinion matters.
    • Be transparent, open and honest. We can’t get better if we don’t know what needs improvement.
  • Ensure all questions are open-ended and engender discussion.
  • Begin with a positive question to get everyone in the right frame of mind (e.g. “What do you enjoy about working at Mary Greeley?”)
  • Wrap up each session by thanking participants for their time and their honesty. And remind them of their pledge to keep their colleagues’ feedback confidential.
  • Communicate frequently and proactively about any actions taken as a result of feedback from the focus groups. This ensures participants know their input was taken seriously.
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