Controlling The Alter Leader in Focus Group Research. Where They Sit Can Tell You Where They Stand!

By Dr. Sharon Livingston

A RESPONDENT'S POSITION on an issue may be a reflection of his seating position at the table, or the converse may be true. In every group, people choose roles in relation to the other members of the group and the designated leader. Seating choices often are a function of those interactions. In a classroom, for example, the "teacher's pet" sits close to the teacher while the troublemakers often choose the back of the room.

In qualitative marketing research, it is critical to be aware of these dynamics and minimize their effects. Instead of indicating interest in a particular product concept or reacting to advertising copy, responses actually may be a result of a "personality contest" between group members. Several techniques can be used to assess and control these forces. The techniques can be applied in focus groups, business meetings, and even social gatherings.

EACH GROUP HAS ITS OWN NATURAL LEADER. In a productive group, the natural leader ("alter leader") helps the moderator in getting responses to questions by modeling "good" behavior. The "good" alter leader often is the first to speak up. He seriously thinks about questions, and is enthusiastic and supportive of the process. He addresses constructive questions to other panel members. He believes the group's opinions really do count.

In a nonproductive group, the alter leader also is vocal, but negative and resistant. He objects to the questions, answers questions not asked, and tries to enforce his views. He is argumentative, competitive, and seeks to control the group - and often succeeds in his efforts.

Researchers who have observed focus groups know this person well. He's the one who is first to attack advertising. "It's all stupid, insults my intelligence. It's all a gimmick, there's always a catch," he says. Even though the screening interviewer told him that the group session would last two hours, this one grumbles that he has to leave a half an hour earlier than the rest. He may make jokes at the moderator's expense. When told there are people watching from another room, he's the first to wave at the mirror. Like the class troublemaker, he sits with his arms crossed and a superior sneer on his face.

Whether supportive or defiant, the alter leader tends to choose the seat opposite the moderator. A positive alter leader can be very helpful, furthering inquiry and encouraging more responses from other group members. In fact, in therapeutic groups with two leaders, the leaders often intentionally position themselves directly opposite each other to strengthen group interaction.

NOT ONLY DO ALTER leaders tend to sit opposite the moderator, but whomever sits there seems to be affected by the position. The chair almost seems powerful in and of itself. A respondent moved into the alter-leader space at the table often becomes more assertive and talkative. He may even become the alter leader, although he would normally defer to a stronger group member.

The leadership tension affects the behavior and attitudes of other people in the group as well. The effect is related to proximity to the moderator and counter leader, both to the right and to the left.

Not surprisingly, people closer to the moderator tend to be more supportive of that person, while those sitting closer to the alter leader lend their support in the other direction. As many research studies have proven, people near to each other in residence or on the job become friends more often than others. Further, we have noticed that those to the immediate right of each pole tend to offer more unquestioned support of that leader, his "right-hand man."

Those to the left of the leader also offer support, but in a more "left-handed" fashion. Support for either end seems to wane halfway down the table. People sitting in the middle seem to be least influenced by the two poles.

Commonly used phrases suggest the effect of participant placement. "I'm not in a position to do anything about it at the moment." "Those two really squared off against each other." "That was a left-handed compliment." "That came out of left field."

How can these forces be dealt with in qualitative marketing research? It is important to quickly assess the disposition of the person in the alter-leader chair. If defiant, he may rally against the moderator, which may be evidenced in negative reactions to concepts and products, by himself as well as his neighbors.

Before dealing with the situation, it is critical to identify the alter leader's mood. Is he friend or foe? What does his body position tell you? Is he interested and open, or does he seem antagonistic?

In addition to listening to his words, listen to his tone and watch his nonverbal signals. Most communications researchers agree that our words account for only 7% of communications impact. Voice tone is responsible for 38% and nonverbal messages account for 55%.

Once a problem exists, what can the moderator do about it? Initially, if the alter leader seems defiant, the moderator can (under some guises) change the seating order. The moderator might put his strongest natural supporter, his right-hand person, in the counter leader's slot and bring the defiant alter leader to the moderator's immediate right.

In addition, the moderator can and should change his position in the room. Neighbors tend to be friendly. Standing to the left of a hostile, confrontational respondent puts him to the moderator's right. The natural allegiance formed by physical closeness makes it difficult to rebel or negatively influence others.

On the other hand, a skilled moderator also recognizes the tendency of those sitting close to him to want to please, and dispels it. The moderator emphasizes and values individual differences within the group. He states this and puts it into action with his responses.

The moderator lets the group know that he is not judgmental, and has no investment in the outcome of the project. He is not an employee of the corporation conducting the research. His job is not dependant on the valences of the group's reactions. His task is solely to uncover all sides of a particular issue.

Differences of opinion are important to unearth, although not for the purpose of dispute or argument. There are no right or wrong answers. With this approach, those wanting to please the moderator have little direction other than to honestly answer the question.

Asking the group members to jot down their responses to important questions before discussing them also helps to eliminate the effect of leadership tension and the choosing of sides. Once a participant has committed his feelings to paper, he tends to maintain his own thoughts on an issue and is less susceptible to the counter leader's influence. The first writing exercise should be done early in the group to quickly establish each individual's autonomy.

Additionally, if the alter leader is not supportive, the moderator should watch his own eye contact in that direction. Sometimes, there is a tendency to look at the leadership contender in a way that suggests that approval must be won from that position. This can be defeating. The moderator should concentrate on directing eye contact to all participants and, in fact, avoid looking at a rebellious alter leader until he stops his counterproductive behavior.

Since the first person to the moderator's right often is the strongest support, this person will tend to go along with any request of the leader. One effective use of seating is to start the inquiry by addressing a series of questions to this respondent. He will answer as fully and honestly as he can, and act as a role model for the rest of the group. The moderator can shape the group's responsiveness by working with this cooperative person. This is particularly useful in handling sensitive topics.

Another suggestion is to remove the confrontational seats from the table. If the table seats 10 and only eight show up, eliminate the two chairs at the end of the table. Interestingly, the shape of the table doesn't seem to matter in the issue of leadership tension. Whether rectangular, boat-shaped, U-shaped, or round, a confrontational chair still exists opposite the moderator.

The size however can add or detract from this phenomenon. The larger the table, the more space between individuals and the greater the distance between the moderator and the alter-leader seat. Distance supports differences while it encourages allegiances among those closest to the table's poles. A table that permits just enough space for people to comfortably sit around is friendlier and more intimate - with a lower level of built-in antagonism.

Similarly, the room itself should encourage a cozy feeling. People only need sufficient room to walk around the table. Too much space, again, fosters distance and the potential for taking sides. Of course, the climate of the panel room should be comfortable. An overheated, smoky room can impact negatively on members' dispositions and their responses.

The seating effect also occurs in other work and social groups. Try to recall a recent social gathering you attended. If your like most people, you probably sat next to someone you liked and avoided someone with whom you were less comfortable. In these situations, the same rules and techniques apply. For example, I belong to a community-planning board that meets periodically to discuss the details of civic events. In the past, another board member had consistently challenged my opinions and tried to provoke an argument. By her choice, my antagonistic always put distance between us, sitting on opposite sides of the room.

Many of our discussions were unproductive and a waste of time. Then, in one meeting, I tried something new. I sat down to her immediate right. We spent four hours in the same room without so much as the slightest disagreement. And, at the end of the meeting, she shook my hand and smiled at me as she left.

This incident exemplifies the fact that in a non-business meeting, as well as in consumer panels, it's important to bear in mind how seating affects attitudes and behavior. Researchers need to be sure that respondents' positions on concepts and products reflect their true feelings, and not their seating positions in the group.