When companies want to hear from employees, a common reaction is to conduct a survey — wanting to do something, anything, to show the company’s response. It’s not uncommon for a company to get high marks initially for “this is a great place to work” or “everyone has a chance to grow here.” Such responses, however, more often than not reflect employees’ distrust of corporate attempts at feedback gathering, including a disbelief that such surveys really are anonymous. It’s safer to tell the company what it wants to hear; after all, what’s likely to change, anyway?
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This is where discovery groups come in. Using an appreciative inquiry process, tapping into strengths to empower people to contribute to positive change, my firm has been conducting discovery groups for companies and organizations. Most recently, we’ve been collaborating with organizations to establish a baseline of feedback and commentary from Black employees and other colleagues of color, as well as stakeholders, who often feel that their voices are not sufficiently heard or valued. After trust has been established — with assurances that responses are anonymized and not even attendance at the sessions will be disclosed — the barriers start coming down. One person after another will open up, sharing personal experiences about what it’s like to work at a particular company, within a specific division, and sometimes for an individual manager. Or, in a different context, people may describe the experience of being a customer, vendor, or other stakeholder. Often, what we hear is that fact-finding and other engagement have felt like a check-the-box exercise rather than a sincere effort to listen.
Discovery groups seek to change that impression by facilitating dialogue and sharing among those gathered together. As one person tells their story, someone else is empowered to do the same. People finally feel it is safe to discuss and disclose how invisible and exhausted they feel, or how hopeless it is to try to get ahead when promotions continually support the status quo. They speak deep, long-held truths.
Discovery groups should not be mistaken for gripe sessions. Rather, they acknowledge that the people closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions. Their storytelling becomes qualitative data that adds depth and nuance to the quantitative data that can be gleaned from employee surveys and workforce statistics.