Participant Or Observer

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I was enjoying an article about how Credit Unions need to start expanding their appeal to Millenials and what they can do to tap into that demographic. Right up until the author wrote, “Everyone gets a participation trophy, right?”

While not a Millenial myself, I’m close enough that I’m not unbiased. I am a big fan of Millenials, and have a great deal of respect for them in the workplace. I often become incensed by the association of participation trophies with that generation. I’ve never known a person my age or younger who liked or wanted participant awards. It was a thing of my parents generation that was imposed on us and then gained momentum.

We have a generation with a reputation for expectng them, and yet they are less likely to sit on the sidelines and more likely to roll up their sleeves and get to work. By comparison, I’ve had more workplace struggles with workers from the previous generation or so who expect recognition beyond the scope of what they’ve done to earn it, who fail to push boundaries, and who struggle to achieve in the absense of external structure – the very shortcomings which they like to attribute to Millenials.

For me there is more value in those who are active than in those who are merely present. Yes, the fast paced, interconnected world in which Millenials came into their own creates a unique set of challenges, but it’s long past time for the observers to stop undervaluing the participants.

Necessary Evil? Not Necessarily

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I’m no fan of meetings, but I have yet to meet a person who is.

I read an article a while back that if you don’t find value in a particular meeting that you should decline it. While there’s certainly some merit here, unless you’re The Boss, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the freedom to decline every meeting in which you don’t find value. The other problem is that a meeting may not be valuable to you, but your presence in it may be valuable to other people.

We hit a rough stretch a while back, and a number of meetings started showing the same signs –

  • Awkward silences
  • Long pauses
  • Unanswered questions
  • Glancing around the table

There were plenty of reasons for this. Among the most common –

  • Speaking up felt unsafe
  • No one felt heard
  • Meeting didn’t seem to create any change

At some point I’d had enough and crossed the line into feeling like I no longer had anything to lose. So I started speaking up. Answering questions. Asking challenging questions. Voicing the concerns I’d heard other people mention, even if they weren’t my own.

The meetings didn’t exactly get better, but things started to shift because the team had a safe mouthpiece. While it’s not the most glamorous position, and it comes with some inherent pitfalls, it did begin to change the nature of conversations for the better. Eventually, other people began to speak their minds.

I can’t claim credit for making a change, but I did learn something I should have learned a long time ago. Challenge isn’t bad. Neither are questions. And if you’re not in a position to challenge what’s being said or to ask questions then you’re in the wrong position.

Since then, I’ve made it a personal goal to improve skills which would have made things easier.

  • Identifying when you will be heard
  • Speaking the language (figuratively) of the person with whom you’re speaking
  • Identifying when to not back down
  • Learning to say no in a way that doesn’t entirely shut down the conversation

While I wasn’t entirely lacking these skills, they were all rough around the edges. As I’ve polished them, I’ve found that more things get done, more pitfalls are avoided, and doors open.

I’m also happy to say that other people have made the same changes, and now meetings are genuinely places of discussion where things get accomplished.

It’s not about avoiding meetings. It’s about changing them.

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable...about Solving the Most Painful Problem in BusinessDeath by Meeting: A Leadership Fable…about Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business by Patrick Lencioni
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having the points made through a fictional story (followed by a more direct recap of th principles) was a pleasant break from other business and leadership books which I’ve read.

Although I feel that the conclusions on how to balance meetings are too rigid, I agree with the need to foster open and unfettered discussion and to ensure that each meeting doesn’t attempt to accomplish everything.

Despite not buying in wholeheartedly to the specific division of meeting types, there’s still value in the way the book separates certain types of topics and points out when certain limitations or freedoms will be of the most value.

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Feedback With Impact

Street, pavement, brick and sign
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Sometimes you will find yourself in a situation where you are best served by silence. Other times silence will be your enemy.

In a dynamic workplace with fluid staffing, silence will rarely meet your needs.

Looking for more impactful input in the conversations with my leader and my peers, I picked up Harvard Business Review’s Giving Effective Feedback from their 20 Minute Manager series to act as a quick reference guide to round out some of my communication skills. Many of these conversations have needed to include feedback – the kind focused on the need for improvement and adaptation to difficult, fast-paced situations.

The elements I found most useful, were the tips on how to receive feedback in return, and how to ensure you’re cultivating a conversation where you’ve both found common ground.

In my case, these conversatons often involve people with differing individual needs who have the same (or at least similar) end goal. The difficulty isn’t the goal, it’s creating the roadmap needed for everyone to reach the goal together. These are conversations involving competing or contradictory needs, which put people in a position where opinions will be strong, and not everyone can get everything they want.

I’ve found it’s important to remember that shared goal rather than focusing on the hurdles. It’s okay to start a conversation with a problem and no solution – as long as you are working together to focus on the solution rather than getting stuck in giving the problem all of your combined attention.

The information in this book isn’t new or revolutionary, but it’s a good touchstone for the impact my conversations are having. I’d recommend it to anyone in a similar situation. If you’re looking for something more, the back of the book lists a number of additional helpful resources.

Giving Effective Feedback (HBR 20-Minute Manager Series)Giving Effective Feedback by Harvard Business Review
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Giving Effective Feedback breaks down impactful ways to provide feedback to direct reports, peers, and superiors in a format which improves the chance that it will be heard and used. It addresses follow up, and discusses ways to discuss feedback in situations where it might not be openly accepted. It’s a fast read and easy to navigate for reference. The Learn More section at the back of the book turns this quick refernece piece into a jumping off point for diggin in to work on these skills.

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Life Inside the Cubicle