6 dysfunctions of town hall meetings

Most franchisor executives and franchisees have experienced group meetings that have become so negative, many of the participants have vowed not to attend again in the future. This usually has more to do with the process of how meetings are conducted, than the content or the issues being discussed.

Molehills can easily turn into mountains if people don’t feel listened to. On the other hand, highly contentious issues can be discussed in a calm and constructive manner if meetings take into account sound principles of group psychology.

The 6 dysfunctions of town hall meetings

Town hall meetings typically involve franchisor executives standing or sitting out front of a group of franchisees, responding to comments, questions and criticisms. While I am a fan of frank, open discussion, the town hall meeting is a flawed process for six reasons.

1. To express an opinion, a franchisee has to stand up and speak out loud, often into a microphone, in front of a large number of peers. Most people find this daunting and prefer to let someone else do the talking.

2. The people who don’t find this daunting are the ones you probably don’t want to hear from – loud, opinionated and angry. When people get emotional, the quality of what they have to say deteriorates, adding to the mayhem.

3. Once someone has publically stated a belief or opinion, they are likely to hold onto it, even when presented with contrary evidence. Strong psychological forces are at work here, forces which make logical discussion unlikely.

4. When people come together, they naturally form into sub-groups and close ranks. Psychologists call this the In Group/Out Group Bias. The dynamics of a town hall meeting create an “us and them” mentality and almost force franchisees and franchisor executives to think they are on different sides.

5. If you have ever been in front of a group, on the receiving end of their criticism, you’ll know how demoralizing this is. And how easy it is to become defensive and get yourself into an argument!

6. It is hard for franchisor executives, no matter how smart they are, to come up with useful, quality responses on the spot, without time to reflect or consult with their peers. When I say useful, quality responses I am not referring to the waffle, rhetoric and spin we frequently hear from politicians and community leaders.

The magic of the group scoop

Thankfully there are excellent alternatives to town hall meetings which preserve the spirit of frank, open discussion without the deleterious downsides. For instance we have developed robust processes such as the ‘group scoop’, which uses a facilitator and round table discussions, to achieve what many would say is impossible.

  • It creates a relaxed, safe space where every person in the room contributes their honest comments or questions on what matters to them. No-one is put under the spotlight and no-one dominates the room.
  • The process ensures franchisor executives listen properly and understand the questions or comments coming from the room without having to defend themselves. They also have the opportunity to prepare useful, factual, straight forward responses.
  • By using agreed guidelines and a facilitator who has no vested interests, the group scoop also ensures the atmosphere in the room remains positive, constructive and on topic.
  • And because the process is transparent, and everyone is involved, trust is enhanced. This is probably the most important benefit because low trust is the biggest barrier to successful franchisor-franchisee collaboration.

Smart franchisors are incorporating facilitation techniques such as the group scoop into their group meetings. These techniques can be used with groups of 20 to 200 to get buy-in to change, resolve conflict, gather feedback and create new insights for innovation.

My colleague, Jewli Turier and I will be teaching this technique and sharing other ways to more effectively manage groups of franchisees as part of the Advanced Field Manager Bootcamp in Sydney next month. If you have attended the Foundation program we hope you can take advantage of this advanced learning opportunity.