Do your executive briefings connect with staff?

Town hall meetings can engage and motivate employees — but only if done right

Many organizations are recognizing the need to connect with their employees, to help them stay focused on the task at hand. For some, connecting means bringing the CEO forward for face-to-face presentations to large groups of employees — typically known as a town hall meeting. Done well, a town hall meeting can engage employees, motivate them and reconnect them with the company’s goals. Done poorly, it can be a colossal waste of money and time, boring — or worse, annoying — employees rather than motivating them.

“It’s those times when you get information being shared that is not relevant to you that it is very painful,” Jill Duncan, a scientist with a major pharmaceutical firm, says of her experience as an employee in the audience. At those times all she can think about is the money being wasted by the company. “All these people’s salaries times two hours.”

When the executive spends half the meeting reading sales statistics from a slide presentation, Duncan gets frustrated. It’s information that could be more easily e-mailed to staff.

In principle, it makes sense for executives to hold information-sharing sessions. Historically, it has been seen as an easy way for the leaders to share their vision, goals and objectives, and that was enough. But times have changed. Employees are more sophisticated. Employee concerns have changed. HR has to ensure every meeting is relevant to those concerns.

Professional meeting facilitator Eli Mina says every meeting should provide a reasonable return-on-investment. “If there is a town hall meeting it has to provide value. If it doesn’t, it’s a waste of time, effort and energy,” he says. If your objective is strictly to provide information to employees, a town hall meeting is a waste of time because “the same result could be achieved by sending the speech to everyone by e-mail.”

What, then, is a good reason to hold a town hall meeting? It’s a good format when you want to engage people and get their feedback, says Mina. In these days of uncertainty, a town hall meeting can be used to build community and team spirit. It’s also a good venue when you’re trying to implement change and want it to be understood. “It’s more likely to be embraced this way,” he says. “That can be a valuable return-on-investment.”

When you’re implementing change, a town hall meeting can be used to find out from staff what some of the obstacles to that change might be. That can save you time and money, ensure change is more securely embraced, engage the audience and build trust with employees because they know they are being heard — certainly a reasonable return-on-investment.

Balance is the key, says Sandy French, president of Northern Lights, a marketing and communication company. You must put items on the agenda that speak to employee concerns. These can be drawn from employee feedback surveys, he says.

“I also think that listening often does more for focusing attention than talking. This seems counter-intuitive to many leaders but employees, when given the opportunity to speak frankly, will often share their concerns. It is very helpful for shaping your future communications and dealing directly with employee issues. Give this a lot of time on the agenda, and encourage two-way dialogue.”

French says the biggest challenge may be to change the perception of the town hall meeting before people enter the room. “Many of us have sat through enough sessions that have the appearance of being open and democratic forums, but are actually just about the senior people going through their presentations and a few brave souls asking benign questions.”

Executives will never get the straight goods or true engagement from employees at these meetings unless they create an environment of overall trust. Leaders must take the time and use different avenues to achieve this. For example, questions submitted anonymously and feedback forms are two methods.

“I firmly believe that executives drive the communication culture of an organization,” says French. “To have a systemic impact, any sessions you hold need to be relevant, collaborative and apolitical.”

Preparation is very important, says Christina Cavanagh, professor of management communication at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business in London. The person holding the meeting “has to be prepared and do his or her homework before doing the meeting. And their communications people — it could be the HR people — have to help that person prepare. Like a person needs to be prepared to speak with the media; it’s the same type of thing. You have to understand your audience, the messages you need to convey, and understand your audiences’ issues.”

Specifically, if the audience has a negative issue, the CEO needs to know that before the meeting. Because if the CEO is not aware of it and does not address it, “you may end up creating a more mistrustful group of people than ever — and then you’ll never get them back.”

How to ensure meetings engage the audience

Jill Duncan says sometimes she sits at the back of the meeting room so she can be prepared to do other things if the meeting becomes irrelevant to her. Fortunately, there are many ways you can draw in your employees to keep them engaged — and at the front of the room.

•Rather than having the CEO talking the entire time, department heads can present. Or, on a rotating basis, each department can facilitate the whole meeting. That way, they can sculpt it so it’s more relevant to the front-line staff.

•Consider hiring an emcee, who introduces the speakers, including the CEO, giving them each 10 minutes to present. A professional emcee can make the meeting run more smoothly, because his main focus is on the meeting itself, rather than last quarter’s sales performance stats.

•Address employees on relevant and interesting topics that haven’t been offered before, such as an analysis of the competition. When was the last time you outlined for employees the ways in which your organization’s product differs from that of the competition? Are they even clear on who their competition is? It’s a sure bet they would like to be.

•Have front-line staffers, not just executives, make presentations. Often their information can be enlightening because they know the business from a customer’s perspective.

•Get an outside expert in some area of your business to present. For instance, a pharmaceutical company could get someone from Health Canada to make a presentation.

•Celebrate your firm’s success by rewarding some employees during the meeting.

•Have attendees break into smaller groups tackling a specific topic and report back to the group during the meeting.

•If the presentation is very important, rehearse it beforehand using a video camera so the speakers can critique themselves. Have a question and answer session after the meeting and listen to employees.

•Lastly, make sure you use a feedback mechanism of some kind. Ask attendees: “Was this meeting relevant to you?” Use that information to ensure your next one is.

Don’t say it to his face: Just hit send

Conventional wisdom might say that if you’re to deliver bad news, do so in person.

But at least one study suggests this is not the case. Use e-mail instead, said Stephanie Watts Sussman and Lee Sproull from Boston University.

People tend to be reluctant to deliver negative information — so much so they delay or distort negative information to make it sound better.

“Your project has been cancelled... you didn’t get the promotion... you have to rewrite the report. No one likes to hear bad news; few people like to deliver it either,” stated the authors.

“However, in organizations, receiving bad news or negative information can be a first step toward improvement.”

E-mail encourages straight talk, said the authors, because it buffers the deliverer from the receiver, hence it “may decrease the deliverer’s psychological discomfort throughout the delivery process.”

To try out the theory, the researchers had 117 undergraduate students deliver feedback to someone they believed was a fellow student, using one of three ways: in person, by phone and by e-mail.

They found bad-news messengers who used phone and in-person conversations tended t o distorted the bad news. E-mail users were significantly more frank than the other two groups.

When it came to positive feedback, however, the authors found no distortion. It would seem people don’t have any trouble delivering good news.

But you have to tell us

Like it or not, companies in the European Community will soon have to meet minimum standards for communication and consultation between employers and employees, as set out in a directive by the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union.

The directive states that employees will have the right to be:

•informed about recent and probable developments of the business;

•informed and consulted about their employment within the business, especially in circumstances threatening their employment; and

•informed and consulted about decisions likely to lead to substantial changes in work organizations or contractual relations, including redundancies and transfers.

The directive requires employers to consult workers, defining such consultation as an exchange of views and establishment of dialogue. The consultation will be done in such a way as to “enable employees’ representatives to meet the employer and obtain a response, and the reasons for that response, to any opinion they might formulate.”

Joyce Grant is a Toronto-based freelance writer and long-time contributor to Canadian HR Reporter.

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