Bad meetings

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Ah, meetings: the scourge of the productive, and friend only to time-wasters or lovers of biscuits. I used to work for an NGO, and I know only too well the havoc that can be wreaked by endless meetings leaving no time to do any actual work. Sometimes we would have meetings to talk about when to have meetings.

Yuki Noguchi writes for NPR this week on why the workday is so full of meetings and I can really relate: meetings taking too long, meetings with no real purpose, participants there in body but not in mind, notebooks full of doodles, etc etc.

I now work for a Japanese employer, and the meeting culture is very different. Meetings in Japan are held to confirm decisions already made elsewhere (by a process known as nemawashi – quietly getting approval by approaching decision-makers informally much earlier on). This can really confuse Westerners who generally turn up to meetings expecting to have a cup of tea and a chinwag about something, and not to mention bad for your career once you realise you’re only there to rubber-stamp something that has been agreed without you. But on the plus side it does mean you’re less likely to be stuck there for hours wondering what the meeting is about. The other good thing about Japanese meetings, at least those involving very senior managers, is the bento boxes.

I say those calling the meeting (in any culture) should be upfront about what the meeting is about. If you were told: ‘I have no goal in mind for calling this meeting, but I just feel the need to have a chat and a catch-up. Oh, and there will be biscuits and coffee.’ Then at least you would know what to expect on getting there. And you needn’t worry so much about making intelligent input. But in that instance you should be allowed to politely decline without any damage to your working relationships. And then go home on time for once.

What is the point?

Ever have one of those days when your work seems to be utterly meaningless? Believe me, I’ve been through spates of those, caused by a myriad of reasons. But what to do when that feeling strikes? Isn’t it just the worse feeling when for one reason or another you’re sitting at work thinking ‘why am I here?’

Here’s a reminder of the importance of PURPOSE in motivation, a  video condensing Daniel Pink‘s book on motivational theory Drive down to a 10-minute animation.

I hope it provides some inspiration! If you’re a manager or supervise another, it may surprise you to know that you can have a lot of influence over how motivated your staff are, just by providing or encouraging a sense of purpose in your team. For the rest of us the question remains over how you can find purpose yourself in your work?

How do you motivate yourself when it all seems a bit meaningless?

Mentoring works!

I have had experience of both mentoring and being mentored, and I would heartily recommend both, whatever stage you are at in your career. But what is mentoring or being mentored all about?

  • Last year I was introduced to a senior HR Director and we had a few meetings over coffee before work to talk about career planning. These meetings turned into a  big wake-up call for me to think more about my future, and my attempts to formulate a 5-year career plan turned into 5-year life planning, much to my and my husband’s bewilderment.
  • From the other end of the mentoring relationship I was introduced to someone wanting to break into the HR profession. This has resulted in lots of discussions in cafes and pubs and emails to discuss getting her foot in the door, CV writing, interview preparation etc. These discussions have ended up in my mentee recently securing a job offer at a HR consultancy and even though I can in no way take credit for her achievement, I somehow feel proud that I was able to help in some way.

If you think you don’t have enough experience or seniority to mentor another, think again. Volunteer and it will both bring benefits to your mentee, and boost your own confidence in your professional abilities. And you get a great feeling when you can help someone develop. Mentoring is not so much about offering opinions,  as sharing your experience and the inside track on a certain career path. So you don’t need to be an expert by any means. To someone outside your field of work, any insight you can offer could potentially be very useful.

As a mentor you will be committing to helping another navigating the 21st century career ‘rockface‘ – providing a helping hand, a guide, as well as another pair of eyes and ears on their job-hunting strategy or work dilemmas.

How to get a mentor?

Do you want an internal mentor from your own company or someone external to your organisation who can give you a fresh perspective? Are you looking for a promotion or growth within your current organisation, a complete change of industry, or an entry point into a profession? That first job after qualifying or university?

Look for someone whose work you admire or a professional network offering a mentoring scheme. Both of my mentoring experiences mentioned above came my way via introductions from networks and professional bodies of which I am a member. And many professional organisations and networks are happy to accept student members or applications from those trying to get into that profession.

How long should it go on for?

Mentoring is different from coaching, which is much more focused on getting you from a defined place (where you are now) to a goal (where you want to be). Mentoring can be short-term (a brief conversation over a coffee) or long-term (your mentor advises you throughout many stages in your career). Decide what you want to get out of it and see where it can take you. Remember that it should be non-obligatory, and you never know your mentor could put you in touch with others who can help you in different areas of your career. They could even turn out eventually to be someone you’d call a friend.

Happiness

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A recent FT article claimed that happy people may be the most effective in the workplace. Is this really surprising? Who among us wouldn’t want to be one of those fabled people who leaps out of bed in the morning and spends most of their working days productive and happy?

Researchers talk about ‘human flourishing’ (see this Cornell University research paper)or finding ‘meaning’ in the workplace (see The Why of Work by Dave & Wendy Ulrich) as a better indicator of retaining talented staff and harnessing the power of a productive workforce.

But I would hazard a guess that most employers do not concern themselves with whether their workers are happy or not. Going to work has traditionally not been seen as a way to make yourself happy, and in the present economic climate most employers would expect their employees to just be happy to have a job at all.

But as the FT article points out, the opposite of happiness in the workplace is not sadness, but fear: fear of unemployment. And as Professor Andrew Oswald, an economist at Warwick University states, ‘everything to do with fear is debilitating’. I once visited an office whose staff had recently been told by their senior management to improve their bottom line results or risk closure of the branch. Far from spurring the employees on, it created an atmosphere of anxiety and strained relationships between those working there; a bad use of the ‘stick’ approach to improving performance, as opposed to the ‘carrot’.

Any workforce is not going to be at its most productive when it’s in a state of fear. And what happens when that fear subsides? When the economy does pick up and confidence returns, the elite workers, the talent will simply up and leave.

But what does make people happy at work? Is it just to do with the rewards on offer? Some employers do concern themselves with that question, and you only have to look at pictures of Youtube’s offices in San Bruno, California to see that a nice environment and happy staff can contribute to an innovative and highly successful organisation. They even have an indoor slide. Presumably along with success comes the budget to build an office like this?

For most people, happiness at work ultimately lies in the people we are working with. We’ve often heard that employees don’t leave organisations, they leave managers. Well, often employees stay at companies because of strong working relationships. This makes sense; if we think about the amount of time we spend with our colleagues over the course of our working lives, no wonder those relationships will have a big impact on how ‘happy’ we feel to remain in that environment.

If only for retention purposes, employers need to start concerning themselves with how happy their employees are. Let’s not assume that just because staff turn up for work every day they are necessarily happy to work where they are. I’m not advocating for employers to start concerning themselves with the private lives or deeply personal motivations of their staff; happiness is an emotion, and a fleeting one at that. But there is an underlying state of being ‘happy’ that involves contentment, stability and a positive frame of mind. Surely we would want to create workplaces and working relationships that reinforce that state rather than undermine it?