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    The obligations of the Town Hall

    A few hundred years ago, small towns in New England embraced the idea of the town hall. Citizens (at the time, just the white men) came together and worked through the town’s agenda. Each person could speak, each person could vote, it was direct and sometimes effective.

    Part of the innovation was the idea that each vote was equal, regardless of how much land you owned or wealth or status you had acquired. (Conveniently ignoring all the souls left out of the meeting.)

    When there’s no representative to blame, the responsibility feels different. When everyone in the room can speak, there’s also an expectation that people will listen as they wait their turn. The entire endeavor only works if people are willing to engage and seek mutual success.

    We agree to speak with care, to listen to others, to change our minds when useful and to abide by the will of the majority. That’s a lot.

    It’s not unusual for companies to have an event, as often as weekly, that they call a town hall. But this is different. It’s largely a performance, not a conversation among peers. Everyone very much doesn’t get a vote. This is a feature of the corporation, not a bug. We label the roles with power, and clearly put them on a chart.

    Traditional Town Halls require each participant to understand their responsibility as well as the power of their vote. They use cultural cohesion and the permanence of real estate in a small town to create civility and mutual respect. It’s not surprising that they don’t scale very well.

    When a company actually wants the opinions of those who work there, there are far more effective ways to have a productive conversation around the insights and desires that we each bring to the organization. Asynchronous and structured, these interactions are vital sources of connection and wisdom.

    I’m all in favor of a well-run company meeting. When bosses have the guts and energy to describe their vision for the future, it can make a difference. But it’s not a town hall.

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