The leader (let's call him "Carl") had been CEO of his company (let's call it "Acme") for just a few months. For his first few weeks on the job, Carl was busy meeting people and figuring out his priorities, so he had not had a chance to get together with a large group of employees.

Today was Carl's first employee town hall meeting. He was determined to make it a success, so he spent a lot of time preparing his presentation and working with his team to make sure everything would be perfect.

And the meeting started out really well. Employees paid close attention to Carl's presentation. People seemed positive and upbeat.

And then (theme from Jaws) it was time for questions. An ominous silence fell. After a few painful minutes, someone raised her hand. That question (and the CEO's answer) led to others, but the Q&A session never really took hold. It felt like a struggle, not like an engaging, meaningful encounter.

Sorry, Carl, despite your best intentions, you are at least somewhat responsible for the fact that employees didn't participate. Your employees had a lot to say, but they responded to subtle (or not so subtle) cues about whether it was safe to speak up.

The good news for Carl (and every leader) is that you can encourage employee participation in both big-group forums and in other venues. Here are 10 suggestions:

  1. Find out why employees don't raise their hands. Ask HR to conduct focus groups  or interviews to explore what stops employees from participating. There are likely some common challenges but there may also be some unique factors at work in your organization. Only by understanding the barriers can you address them.
  2. Set expectations. State up front that this meeting has been designed to include participation. You should then articulate how the session will work (especially if the format is different than previous sessions).
  3. Limit the number of topics. Here's a key reason employees don't participate: The content being presented is too complex, abstract, and boring, so employees can't even think of a question to ask or a way to respond. Remember that a leader's key communication role is not to disseminate information; it's to create focus, build community, celebrate community, and encourage employees to take action. So rather than covering everything, concentrate on one or two key topics of critical importance, then explore the subject in depth.
  4. Allow plenty of time. Most town halls and other venues are too heavily weighted toward presentations, leaving only a few minutes at the end for Q&A. Once employees start to watch the clock ("only 10 more minutes"), they're discouraged from participating. You need enough time to set up the discussion, facilitate dialogue, and build momentum.
  5. Take a vote. The safest way for employees to participate is as part of a big group. An effective option is audience response devices or text polling to ask employees their opinions on key issues. There are a variety of polling tools available; I often use Poll Everywhere, which allows employees to participate via text message or online response. You can ask about a variety of topics, or use the poll to take a deep dive on a key issue leaders are discussing at the meeting. If you don't have access to technology, you can still ask employees to share their viewpoint. The simplest approach? Call for a show of hands.
  6. Eliminate the spotlight. Even the most extroverted of us finds it difficult to raise our hand in front of all our colleagues. So create a way for employees to share their questions or thoughts more quietly. Facilitate a break-out session at tables or in small groups of two or three and ask employees to generate a couple of questions or concerns on cards. Then ask a spokesperson from selected groups to verbally share a thought. Because the ideas were generated in a group, it's easier to speak up.
  7. Instead of calling for questions, pose a question. Even in the most open, supportive culture, it's risky for employees to expose potential ignorance by asking a question. But if you pose a question--like "What are the obstacles to achieving this objective?"--employees have the opportunity to participate from a position of strength.
  8. Try "CEO in the Caf(eteria) Having Coffee." Town halls have become the default venue for senior leaders. But most people are nervous about speaking up in a large group. Augment all-hands meetings with small-group sessions (from eight to 12 people) that focus on dialogue. It's a good idea to introduce a topic to get the conversation started, but then let employees raise issues they'd like to discuss.
  9. In social media, don't set yourself up as the expert; ask questions instead. When leaders seem to have all the answers, you're modeling a "know-everything" behavior that discourages anyone else from asking questions. But if you make it a practice to ask questions--"What's your experience with this? What are some ideas you have for how we can address this?"--you lead by example.
  10. Be seen walking around and chatting with people. If the only time employees see you is on stage, they're not going to be completely comfortable. But the more people you meet in informal settings, the more relaxed they'll be. Always ask a couple of questions like "What are you working on? Any challenges you'd like to share?" to stimulate discussion.