So here’s a curious question. If you don’t have a town, can you still have a town hall meeting? I mean, if it’s only a company and not a whole town, and if the top person at the head table is hired by a board instead of being elected by “citizens,” what’s the point?
Okay, so we all know what’s really going on. Somewhere along the production line, someone got the notion to call what usually amounts to a series of droning management speeches something warm and fuzzy like a “town hall meeting.” That way, the company and its executives would seem more real and more…well…transparent – sort of like the emperor’s new clothes.
Let’s Get Real
If you go back in time, you’ll find at least one striking difference between colonial days when town meetings were the real thing and the feeble attempts of companies today trying to duplicate the effect. When they opened the floor for discussion, it created true dialogue. Sure, employees are usually invited to ask questions at corporate town hall meetings, too. But few step up to the microphone to ask anything probing or provocative because they don’t feel comfortable talking in front of lots of people. What’s more, the responses are seldom substantive because it puts senior managers on the spot to come up with answers off-the-cuff.
Make it Meaningful
Once you get clear on that idea, here’s one way to make town hall meetings more energizing and meaningful for employees:
- Start with the goal to create substantive engagement, understanding that acceptance and behavior change occur more from conversations than presentations.
- Break everyone into groups of 8-10 people.
- Pose a question for small groups to discuss for 10-15 minutes, and ask them to come up with a list of responses; if you have multiple topics and limited time, assign different questions to different groups.
- Ask a spokesperson from each group to give a 90-second report on their top three ideas.
- Have the person facilitating the process give a brief response, acknowledging input from each group.
- If the group is too big for everyone to do a report, select a manageable number, and request that remaining groups submit their answers in writing for later review and response.
Reinforce with Follow-up
What matters most, though, is what happens next. Nothing worth talking about can be sustained from one quarterly meeting to another. Without a systematic follow-up processes to embed the conversations deeper, the impact will quickly fade.
At least two things should happen. First, all employees should receive a summary of the meeting with the input that the small groups gave to the core questions. Second, departments should continue discussions on topics from the meeting to ensure they are assessed and addressed at micro levels of the organization. Be sure to do it in group conversations, though, not by management edict. That way, employees will feel more like involved “citizens,” and not just an audience.
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