Keeping employees in sync with company goals
MANILA, Philippines—The CEO should have just sent us all an e-mail.”
“The speakers should have anticipated our questions.”
These are the most common reactions of employees to less-than-satisfying town hall meetings presided by their organizations’ CEOs and senior executives.
In many of these meetings, employees are usually mum about their concerns.
Town hall meetings are tools for nurturing the workforce, build employee trust, reduce confusion resulting from the rumor mill and help make management information easier to understand.
A 2003 international study on communication in business by Tandberg, a global videoconferencing company, and RoperASW, a marketing research firm, found that 55 percent of people pay full attention in face-to-face meetings, while only 23 percent pay full attention when listening to audio meetings.
Town halls, says Laure Henrichsen, a consumer PR manager for American Greetings Corp. in Cleveland, Ohio, allow the company leadership to hear a variety of perspectives, connect at a grassroots level and learn more about the nitty-gritty issues occurring at the department level.
Julia Freeman, president of the International Association of Business Communicators, on the other hand, says that being able to see the person who is talking helps build acceptance and credibility for the speaker’s message.
Shel Holtz, principal of Holtz Communication in California, says these meetings allow employees to ask questions and try to influence an organization’s decisions.
When the CEO and senior executives start talking about the goals for the coming year and how everyone needs to get on board, nobody will likely have the energy or the enthusiasm to raise a question.
John Guiniven, associate professor of communication at Elon University in North Carolina, says that’s because people feel intimidated and don’t want to appear as if they aren’t team members. “If a senior leader walks out of a town hall meeting saying that the employees ’love us’, something went wrong. If no one said anything negative, if nobody had a chance to vent it, then it was a failure. The speakers need to leave feeling better informed than when they came in,” he says.
To encourage dialogue with employees, Guiniven says it is best to have employees send in questions ahead of time. “A number of employees believe their company screens the questions and check the handwriting to see who wrote them. Allow employees to submit queries anonymously and let them know that questions will not be edited, except for length,” was Guiniven’s advice.
“And while it’s good for the CEO to be long on charisma, it’s more important for the person to be sincere. Employees can discern honesty.”
He also suggests allowing written questions on the floor, since some employees may not be comfortable standing up in front of a large crowd to voice their opinions.
How not to do it
In an article titled “How not to conduct a town hall meeting” by Di Smith of Melcrum Publishing, Veronica Apostolico, director of internal communication of Smith & Nephew, a medical devices organization, gives some helpful tips for CEOs and senior executives – what to avoid and what corporate communicators should do after the meeting.
1.) They should not read from a script.
2.) They should not digress and give a convoluted message.
3.) They should not put too much information on their slide presentations.
4.) They should not talk at employees.
“A town hall meeting is a discussion. It’s meant to be engaging. The leaders should be paying attention to the reactions and move along accordingly. They shouldn’t spew out what they have to say,” she says.
5.) They shouldn’t bully the employees to get questions.
“Some leaders have been known to say ’don’t you have a question? You must have a question!’” says Apostolico.
6.) They shouldn’t make up answers.
She advises corporate leaders should never lie or try to “finesse an answer.” If they don’t know the answer, they should say so but tell the one asking that they’ll find out and get back to him.
7.) They should not try to fit too much information into one meeting.
“To help ensure retention, send out a short survey – immediately after the meeting if possible. Keep it simple with a couple of questions to ensure the message has been received,”Apostolico says.
8.) They should send employees further communication after the meeting, which may read: “For those of you who were able to attend, thank you for coming. If you weren’t there, these are my key messages…this is what we talked about…these are some follow-ups to the questions I couldn’t answer at the time…” Apostolico says what was said at the town hall meeting should be acknowledged and reinforced so people are not trying to interpret it for themselves.
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