Town hall meetings are a valuable tool for organizations to communicate with their employees. However, these meetings can also be prone to common mistakes that can derail their effectiveness. Here, we'll explore some of the most common town hall mistakes and provide actionable tips for avoiding them. Whether you're a seasoned town hall organizer or a newcomer to the game, you won't want to miss this essential guide to maximizing the effectiveness of your town hall meetings.
A town hall scenario
During a town hall meeting, a junior executive named John raises his hand and suggests an idea to improve the company's customer service process. However, the director leading the meeting, Maria, dismisses his suggestion with a curt response, "We've tried that before, but it didn't work." John feels embarrassed and discouraged in front of his colleagues, leading him to feel like his voice isn't valued within the company.
After the town hall meeting, John speaks with a few of his colleagues who also felt hesitant to speak up during the meeting. They all express frustration with the lack of opportunity to contribute ideas and feel like their voices are not being heard by management.
John's experience highlights the importance of creating a safe and open environment where employees feel comfortable sharing their ideas without fear of judgment or criticism. By encouraging and valuing employee input, companies can foster a culture of innovation and collaboration that drives success.
We’ve all seen or experienced a moment like this. Though not as dramatic or rude, we have experienced leadership shooting down ideas immediately after the idea leaves our mouths.
“That’s not a good solution.”
“We’re not going to change from this approach.”
“My problem with your solution is this...”
“That's a ridiculous solution you just suggested.”
All these phrases vary in severity, but they all share one thing—suggestions are shot down immediately.
This needs to stop. Shooting down an employee's suggestion immediately shuts the conversation down.
It’s like that frustrating lunch-time conversation you always end up having:
A: Do you want Italian for lunch?
A: How about sandwiches?
B: Ew no.
B: Hmm... not feeling that either.
The director’s tone and choice of words also make a difference. She's suggesting that John should have known better, and schooled him on his gaps of knowledge about the company in front of the whole company.
John is new to the company, so the gaps in his understanding are expected. But having them pointed out to all his colleagues, seniors, and managers can be mortifying.
If you want employees to speak up, the first step is to build a safe space to speak up. But that doesn’t simply mean holding workshops or setting up feedback channels.
If you want employees to speak up, first build a safe space to speak up.
That means managing the rewards and consequences of speaking up.
In these company interactions, the rewards and consequences here aren’t monetary, they’re intrinsic. John's embarrassment may not be quantifiable, but it is enough to make repeating that same action undesirable.
Action: John raises his hand to suggest an idea.
Consequence: 10 minutes of being put down by the director in front of the company.
Consequence < Action = Action is not repeated.
If the director had instead said: “Thanks for speaking up! We have considered that option but decided that this is the better approach. In the interest of time, I won’t go into details now, but if you want to find out more, feel free to drop by my office next time.”
The equation changes to this:
Action: John raises his hand to suggest an idea.
Consequence: The director thanks John, and invites him to her office to talk sometime.
Consequence > Action = Action is repeated.
Of course, John's reaction, and the reaction of everyone watching, differs from company to company. The cultural background of the team and the personality of employees make a difference in how comfortable people can be with authority figures and speaking up.
All suggestions matter
So how do you master responding to bad ideas at town halls? The best approach hinges on one key belief:
All ideas matter. Even the bad ones.
A study by researchers from the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Texas-Austin said: “...increasing the variability of the quality of solution concepts increases the probability of generating a high-quality solution concept.”
In other words—the more bad ideas you have, the more good ideas you’ll have!
If the director saw John's bad idea not as a waste of time, but as a stepping stone to many good ideas, her reaction to him would be very different. Her first reaction wouldn’t be to point out his mistake. Instead, she would be driven to acknowledge his contribution and encourage others to follow his example.
Leveling the playing field
John's colleague Nick has a suggestion he wants to share as well. But instead of raising his hand at the company town hall, he makes use of an audience interaction tool that the company had employed to support their town hall. They have a dedicated open-ended poll open just for suggestions, and he's encouraged by the many other suggestions he sees there.
He decides to share his suggestion anonymously. By not sharing his name, Nick side-steps the possible embarrassment of having his idea shot down in front of all his colleagues. The consequences are minimized. He would be emboldened to share his thoughts, however crazy they may seem.
If his colleagues upvote that idea, or if the director addresses his suggestions on stage, silent contributors like Nick get the encouragement they need to continue sharing their ideas. He is rewarded for his contributions, despite being anonymous.
One day, he might pluck up the courage to pick up the mic as John had and share his ideas out loud.
Ensure everyone has a chance to participate
Town hall meetings are a great opportunity for companies to gather feedback and ideas from their employees. However, it's crucial to create an inclusive and safe space where all suggestions are valued and heard. By avoiding the common mistake of dismissing employee ideas, companies can create a culture of innovation and collaboration that benefits everyone.
Are your town hall meetings inclusive and safe?