Getting people together to talk is a great idea, so why does it go so wrong? Here are the big mistakes leaders make in All Staff Meetings (also known as Town Hall Meeting) and how to avoid them.

How many times have we all heard the feedback – “There’s no communication. We don’t know what’s going on.”

And just as often, as Leaders hear this feedback, they set up a ‘Town Hall Meeting’ to solve that communication ‘problem’, (although more often than not, not really believing there’s a problem at all, as “it’s just a few people whinging”). They throw together an “All Staff” meeting, (often called a ‘Town Hall Meeting’, despite rarely being held in a Town Hall) and ready themselves to ‘communicate’ in a big bold way that is sure to silence those whinging few.

What could possibly go wrong? What mistakes could leaders make in All Staff Meetings? 

  • An ill-defined problem – “no communication”.
  • A cynical reception of the feedback.
  • An ill-conceived solution.

Don’t get us wrong – Getting everyone together can be a fine idea. There’s so many potential pros – everyone hears the same news (or important news), at the same time, in a very egalitarian way, with plenty of time for questions, with answers given transparently in the moment. If you’re a great communicator, it’s an opportunity to own the message (good or bad) and hear the feedback first hand.

Here’s the top 5 mistakes leaders make in all staff meetings, and then simple ways to avoid them:

  1. Forgetting that Communication is a two-way street
  2. Not being clear on the objective
  3. Inconvenient timing (that annoys people even before they arrive)
  4. Short notice and no agenda out in advance
  5. Pretty horrible comms skills and no one tells you

Let’s look at how each of those play out with a few real life examples.

  1. Forgetting that Communication is a two-way street

This one is really obvious. We all know it so well, but come to a Town Hall meeting, and it’s often forgotten.

This common mistake plays out in structuring the whole meeting for the person/people talking from out front, or on stage, to get their message out, but allowing no time, or very little time, for people to respond, or challenge or question. To the audience, this says “I came to tell, not to listen”. The problem is that you’ll walk away not knowing what was heard, or what people wanted to say back, or whether there was something they disagreed with, or if people are staying with you.

  1. Unclear objective, and therefore a weird agenda

Many effective Town Halls are built to a specific topic, or around an annual communication event, like a Roadshow.

Less effective ones are built in response to unclear feedback, like the feedback mentioned in the opening, “there’s no communication”. If the feedback is as general as “there’s no communication”, you have to walk around and find out what this really means.

Do people simply want more information, or do they want to be involved and contribute to plans? Does it mean they want to challenge your decisions or actions? If they want to be involved, have their voice heard, or make a challenge, then maybe the structure of a Town Hall is the wrong forum. You might be better off with smaller meetings.

In short, know what you’re trying to achieve and then plan the communication to achieve it.

This problem of having no objective usually plays out in a weird agenda.

For example, one business we were working with, had the CEO making an agenda of three topics he wanted to talk about. The two big issues all the employees in the business were talking about and wondering about at the time, were not on his list of three.

Ultimately, the employees felt even worse after the Town Hall, as they didn’t have their issues discussed, and agitated already, they had to sit and listen to three new issues they’d never heard of. The CEO thought he was sharing, but ultimately all the meeting did was add to concerns that he was doing stuff, and making more plans, without anyone knowing.

  1. Wrong timing and a focus on Efficiency instead of Communication

Another common mistake is making the Town Hall at a time that suits the CEO or Senior Leader, or the business, and not the employees.

One example was a Town Hall at 4pm on a Friday. It ran over. People wanted to go home for the weekend.

Another example was 6pm on a Wednesday when the business only ran to 5pm. People had finished work, and were annoyed to be asked to stay back and wait around, when they had no say in the agenda, and weren’t keen to attend in the first place.

Another example was a 7.30am Town Hall, ‘before the day got underway’. Super annoying for employees who had other things planned in their morning, and usually started much later.

Often these times are set for business efficiency or to avoid interruptions. If you don’t have proper time for an All Staff meeting, then maybe think of a different forum or way of talking to the team. If it’s important enough for all staff, it ought to be at a convenient time for all staff.

  1. Short Notice and No thoughtful plan

A mistake leaders Often for all staff meetings is when Town Halls are put on to respond to feedback, or on a whim when a CEO or Senior Leaders ‘want to talk to the whole team’ to put a particular view out there, they are done so on very short notice. If people get short notice of a big work meeting, they will expect something dramatic and important. It will set the expectation of an emergency. They will rush to make it, changing other plans, and turn up ready for big news. If the news is small, or just an update, or a progression of an ongoing issue, there’s no excuse for short notice.

Likewise, if it’s big news, set the expectation that it is big news. Don’t take an already existing plan for a Town Hall, and hijack it with breaking news.

Notice needs to sufficient for all staff to make plans and be there if they want to, and can be. If you want all staff to attend, make sure all staff have every opportunity to attend.

  1. Messenger has some pretty horrible comms skills, and no one tells them

The last really common mistake is that the CEO or Senior Leader has pretty awful communication skills. We’ve all watched that senior leader clinging to the podium with white knuckles, or telling that joke that no one in the audience understood. A large crowd, in a big room, is not a forum for learners, unless they’ve got great support to coach them, or plan with them. Nothing like making a terrible impression to everyone all at once.

We’ve published the Facilitation Guide for running a great Town Hall Meeting. Til then, here’s the key points to solve the big mistakes.

  1. Remember Comms is two-way, make space, and time, in your design for feedback, questions, and challenges. As a rule of thumb, big messages (good and bad) need half the allocated time to be told, and the other half of the time to be allocated to questions, responses, and challenges.
  2. Be clear on an overall objective, and two or three key agenda items. What do you want people to do or say after the meeting? Nice clear agenda, out in advance, so people know what to expect. If you don’t know what they want to hear, ask them, and then set an agenda, and a forum to talk.
  3. Set a time of day that works for most. Town Halls are work meetings. Put them within your working times for most employees. Set a good time to talk, expecting that in a room of so many, there will be multiple views and perspectives. If you think it takes an hour, plan two. If you finish early, people will welcome the time back. If you run over, they’ll be annoyed.
  4. Assuming it’s not an actual emergency (which people will always accommodate), set a reasonable notice period – a week at least – and put the agenda out. Allow people time to reflect on what’s being discussed, so they have views and questions ready, and they set their expectations correctly before they arrive.
  5. If you’re a CEO or a Senior Leader, ask for good honest advice on your comms skills. What works for you (eg, story-telling) and what doesn’t (eg, too much powerpoint). Work with someone who’s a great communicator to plan this event thoughtfully. Work on questions that might arise and how you might respond. Work on what to say if you don’t have the answer. If you’re really nervous, or not a great communicator, get an MC, and pitch yourself to deliver the one or two messages, or answer questions, and don’t try to hold a large audience for an extended time period. Finally, make sure a ‘Town Hall’ is right for you, for the message, and for the conversation. Don’t play to your weaknesses, unless it’s the only way.