Communities and Committees: Mindful Contributions Win the Day

In this week’s reading of Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart, we learned about the importance of collaboration and the attentive nurturing of one’s social network (online and offline). As I read the assigned chapters I was surprised by how Rheingold’s advice for managing our online communities almost perfectly mirrored my work week meditation on successful participation on committees.

This past week I excitedly attended my first meeting as a member on a committee. I can see you rolling your eyes. Keep in mind that I am an enthusiastic people-person with five years professional experience under my belt – which is enough for me to feel like I can meaningfully contribute, and not so much that I’m jaded about committee work. Also, graphic designers don’t often get to weigh in on college-wide policy. I sat at the long U-shaped grouping of desks admiring my coworkers’ professionalism, and keyed up to be able to represent the marketing point of view. I did get to add some good insight to the conversation, but I also contributed at least once when I didn’t necessarily need to, resulting in me feeling like I added more confusion than productive information. Over the course of the week I spent some time thinking about committee participation, college communication in general and how an individual can best use her experience, connections and insight to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. As it turns out, some of my conclusions were almost exactly the same as strategies that Rheingold shared in his discussion of etiquette while online networking:

Pay attention before you join in. (p. 163)

Rheingold’s first tip urges folks to remain a wallflower for the first couple days while checking out a new community. The culture, expectations and general vibe of a community might not be apparent at first look. It makes sense for the savvy web-citizen to take some time to assess the true nature of a community. If it is a bad fit for whatever reason, then everyone is better off – the individual and the community – not to force the relationship. Additionally, watching and waiting helps the prospective member understand what she is can uniquely contribute to the community.

In a committee situation, it’s less of the question of whether to join but what to contribute. Hopefully any new committee member was selected to provide a very specific skill or knowledge. My challenge is that in my eagerness to contribute I am tempted to join-in as soon as I think of anything to add. Instead, I should pause and absorb what is being discussed without the pressure to pipe up at the first opportunity. Just like in online communities, it’s important to understand the context of the issue being discussed, the tone of the conversation and the roles of the other committee members before joining in.

Assume goodwill. (p. 164)

This is crucial in any situation where text is the primary medium of communication. Any time I receive a potentially snarky email from a coworker I step back and remind myself how easy it is to misinterpret the tone of email without the aids of body language and a person’s audible tone of voice. If I still can’t get out of my head that the email is hostile, my next step is to call or visit the coworker in person to discuss. If there is a problem, usually a quick conversation human-to-human eases the tension. Most of the time, rather than malice having been the cause of the nasty-gram, it’s confusion or ignorance of processes, both of which are situations that I should be jumping to remedy.

Jump in where you add value. (p. 164)

I was talking with someone outside of work who I know has been on many committees, and I mentioned how all of my colleagues in the meeting were so well spoken! I couldn’t have presented those facts in such a natural way. I was nervous that when it comes time for me to step up to the plate I will embarass myself. The woman I was chatting with pointed out that my coworkers’ eloquence most likely came from intimate knowledge of the subject they were speaking about. When it comes time for me to share my expertise, I will find myself able to be speak with authority.

In the end, this all relates back to attention management. Overexcited hastiness can be just as harmful as detachment and disinterest. Step back, breathe and take it all in before making a move. Assume that coworkers mean well despite tersely worded emails. Calmly “ask friendly questions” (p. 164) until the matter is explained and resolved. Every person on a committee or employed in a company is there because of a specific skill or point of view. Keeping that unique attribute in mind can help inform when that insight is needed.

I’m sure looking back on this post I will be tickled by my enthusiasm for committee meetings, but I truly am looking forward to the next session, especially now that I have these strategies in mind.

Posted on October 25, 2015, in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. Chelsea Dowling

    Oh Allie – I so wish I had your enthusiasm. I work at an organization the truly seems to pride itself on “death by committee”. While this is more than likely not an academic resource we would reference, I particularly like Urban Dictionary’s definition of death by committee:

    “The slow, painful death of a project prior to completion due to its assignment to a committee. May occur due to squabbling, apathy, or a lack of individual accountability among the members. (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=death+by+committee)

    I digress.

    What your post really brought to life for me was one particular, minor piece about our presence in a committee/community. When we engage in a committee (especially with colleagues or people we know) is that the face-to-face participation can often be daunting. I find this especially true when I’m on a committee with higher-level people (and this might be because of my own current standing within the organization). But I think the difference from this to an online participation in a community can differ because we have that computer screen as not only a buffer towards criticism, but as a different face that allows us to speak up more and be a bit more bold and forthcoming.

    • Ha! I love urban dictionary. Sometimes its definitions speak closer to the truth than Webster. I know it’s crazy to be excited to be on a committee, but sometimes it’s less soul crushing to be bright eyed and bushy tailed. We’ll see how long this lasts 🙂

      I think personality has a lot to do with it too – in the introverted/extroverted way. I know that I get energy from talking with people face to face. This is one reason why I would rather work in an office than to work remotely. This is also the source of the “contributing TOO much” issue that I’m trying to get under control. Rheingold’s advice to wait and contribute when I have something to actually meaningful to contribute is necessary. Otherwise I risk become “that guy” – the kind that shows up on Monday morning with all the energy and nothing actually interesting to say. Yikes!

      • Ugh committee work. I didn’t roll my eyes at you, Allie. I just wanted to come and save you from all future meetings! 😛

        I’m actually on very few committees this year, so that’s good, but the UW System budget climate is truly depressing and every meeting I do go to spends at least an hour on that topic, which is nothing I feel I can offer any expertise on. Even if I did have a degree in accounting, where am I going to find the money to help pay for basic things like supplies, not to mention salaries. Seriously, our college is at the point where everyone is willing to disconnect their office phone line to try and save some pennies.

        I just want to teach my classes and do some cool research!

        With that said, I did appreciate your statement, “When it comes time for me to share my expertise, I will find myself able to be speak with authority.” That will definitely be the case and I do feel that on this blog you are already speaking with authority on graphic design and your school’s strategies for social media, so keep it up!

  2. Allie,

    You’re an example of what more in person and online communities need – an enthusiastic participant! I think at some point long-time members may get complacent and topics stagnate. Which makes it vital for moving the issue forward that we call out those who drag down or hold the issue hostage. More importantly, we need to make sure committees are diverse – with experienced members and those like you who might approach the topic with fresh ideas.

    As for “tersely-worded emails,” I learned a long time ago that some people use fewer and sharper words to communicate. Therefore, I don’t assume intonation in emails (or texts – which is the lowest, most unimportant way to communicate), and never assume that perceived abruptness is meant “at” me. In doing so, my replies remain completely respectfully-professional and I no longer worry what that other person “might have” meant.

    And don’t worry. With your enthusiasm you’ll draw those knowledgeable people to you, and will be more comfortable discussing the topic like a pro in no time. Congrats on your first committee!

  3. Hi Allie, I think Rheingold’s point about assuming goodwill is really important online and at work, as long as you temper it with good common sense. I work with a lot of very smart but seemingly socially challenged people at a research institute. With that in mind, I have learned to take their occasional brusqueness with a grain of salt, knowing it is their nature and that their disquiet is not necessarily aimed at me. In fact, most of them when I see them in the halls, they couldn’t be nicer. At the same time, I’ve learned through experience that some people have malicious intent (you know, those people who cc your boss on everything?), and I try to avoid emailing them at all costs; in fact, I try to avoid them altogether, but it’s best to talk to them face to face. It’s the same thing online. If someone seems legitimate and seems to have a credible reason for making contact with me, I will network with them. However, if someone seemingly has no reason to want to network with me, I’m suspicious and ignore their invitation.

  4. natashajmceachin

    Hi Allie,

    Rheingold’s strategies prove true in nearly every situation, and I find that quite interesting. Perhaps his concepts are more based on human psychology than online communication than we realize?

    His point on “remaining a wallflower” for a while to feel out the community is something I live by. Environments are not always as they seem, and it’s important to truly understand what/who you’re dealing with before you make a fool of yourself.

    I also struggle with speaking up in meetings, and I also notice those who do are typically speaking on their subjects of expertise. I also believe spending more time in the environment and gaining familiarity with the etiquette and participants provides that boost of confidence.

    Great post

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