Employee Engagement: How to Master the Art of Executive Q&As

All-hands meetings and town halls, whether in person, virtual, or hybrid, are vital platforms that enable employees to engage with leaders. But they also carry high risk for executives. When employees ask tough questions, such as reasons for budget cuts or why executives are still getting bonuses after layoffs, management needs to have thoughtful answers, delivered effectively. Botched Q&As not only lower workforce confidence, but with the help of social media they can become public very quickly.

Even with large groups, encouraging a dialogue rather than talking at people is the best way to energize employees. Questions are good! You want employees to ask everything that’s on their minds. And you want to provide them with transparent, meaningful responses—while staying on message.

To achieve this balance, you should avoid these six don’ts—applicable whether you are speaking with internal audiences of 1,000 or one-on-one.

Don’t underestimate the importance of preparation

Brainstorm all the questions you could be asked, as well as questions you hope you don’t get asked—and think about astute responses.

Sometimes the answer to a question is the process of getting the answer. During the pandemic, a constant question was: “When will we be going back to the office?” A response such as “I don’t know” is not very helpful. Instead, we advised a response like the following: “First, our number one priority is your health and safety. As you can see from the news, the information about COVID changes daily. We won’t bring people back to the office until it’s safe. We don’t know when that is, but we will give you at least four weeks’ notice before we change any policies.”

Don’t feel the need to answer immediately

Take a moment and consider your response before diving in. However, while you can pause before answering, don’t brush aside the question by saying “I’ll get to that later.” If someone is brave enough to speak up, you don’t want to dismiss them.

If you need a minute to think, ask the person to repeat the question—or paraphrase it—to give yourself more time.

Of course, you don’t have to answer a question if it’s truly confidential information—but be sure to say that, and why.

Don’t over answer

Be succinct. You can always ask the person if your response addressed their concern. And, don’t let one person dominate or get negative; offer to take the discussion offline.

Don’t plant questions

This comes across as inauthentic. A better approach is to identify several individuals in advance, and tee them up to ask a question of their choosing to get the ball rolling: “Susan, you have excellent experience on this topic, can you share your story and/or questions you have?”

Another way to encourage interaction is to prepare specific questions you can ask the audience in addition to using the prompt, “Any questions?”

Soliciting questions when the meeting invite first gets sent helps you learn what people most want to know, and you can reference those questions at the event.

Don’t rate questions, e.g. “That’s a great question”

What happens to the next person who asks a question? Is their question not great? Instead, say, “Thanks for that question” or “We were just discussing that issue in preparation for today’s meeting.”

Don’t end on Q&A

Close by owning your content and summarizing the key points you most want employees to remember. The last question may not be particularly compelling. For town halls, for example, go beyond thank yous and when the next meeting will be by briefly repeating the two or three most important takeaway

To drive effective employee engagement, welcome questions and comments, be prepared as much as possible, and strive for an open, constructive dialogue.

Valerie Di Maria is principal of the10company, a strategic communications and executive coaching firm.