Are town halls “worth the paper they are printed on?”

Amerika-Haus Köln - Town Hall Meeting Peter Ammon

One quote famously misattributed to Hollywood titan Samuel Goldwyn was “a verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.”

Now, town halls are the main official form of corporate verbal communication. They are where senior executives speak to large crowds of employees, and are such a stable fixture in the internal communication world that they might be a contractual requirement of sorts. But are they worth the effort to organize, much less the total hours of attendance that they mandate from those in attendance?

I admit that I haven’t done exhaustive research, but I have organized and participated in these events for a double-digit number of years. It has struck me that these events seem to suck more value out of an organization than they add to it.

Here’s why:

  • High execution risk:

    A mistake in the execution of an event – a dead microphone, out-of-sequence PowerPoint slides or inappropriate snacks – may prove far more memorable than the actual content that is shared, or even than the presence of the leader(s) themselves.

  • Low audience relevance:

    Unlike those face-to-face events that are aligned with major organizational change activity, traditional town halls tend to be timed to align with quarterly or annual financial results. I have seen many organizations take the view that all employees should be motivated by and interested in the overall financial numbers, and use the town halls to force-feed the numbers to the assembled throng.  But the discussion of the previous quarter’s numbers that the financial markets require often offer little of relevance to employees, who tend to be more interested in what to do in the next quarter and beyond.

  • Limited and stifled dialogue:

    Although I have never been to a town hall that doesn’t have a Q&A section, I don’t remember when many questions were asked.  Indeed, as the communications “bod,” I found myself doing the asking, to the point where the CEO would see me in the elevator afterward and thank me for the question.  As much as I enjoyed the fifteen seconds of fame such encounters offered, it underscored the reality that town halls are lousy environments for stimulating leadership-employee discussion. Something more disempowering happens afterward.  Most town halls end with little left to discuss, and generate little post-event conversation about organizational momentum and direction.  The CEO or leader presents a view, it lands undiscussed, and employees are left to accept it as given or treat it as marginally relevant.

  • The royal box tick:

    In some cases, the CEO sees his quarterly performance at the town hall as his ticking of the “communication box,” and isn’t seen until the following results town hall.

What to do about it?

Although there are a lot of ideas out there about how to improve town halls, most notably from Alison Davis in the US (who is one of the strongest experts and advocates for all-employee communication), I would go farther. I personally would like to see the town hall disappear as a regular communication tool, and instead be reserved for extraordinary announcements and events.

Instead, I would like to see leaders have smaller meetings with well-chosen groups of influencers and/or randomly selected members of staff, with no direct managers present.  This makeup would drive two things: channeling real feedback to leaders from real employees and stimulating those employees talk about their experience with their peers and colleagues.

The tricky thing about town halls is that they are but one of the many tasks of the internal communicator that has little to do with strategy or outcomes, but exists to meet stakeholder expectations.  When communicators can effectively make the case that town halls don’t actually help the cause in their current form, there will be some leeway to change the script or even to take them off the schedule.  Otherwise, they will persist, even if they aren’t “worth the paper they are printed on.”