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.
My house, could be run by librarians. I have always had a little bit of insanity when it comes to cataloging information and trying to make it easy for others to access. For instance, once upon a time, all of my household manuals were kept in one location. Trial and error made me realize that this didn’t make sense. The kitchen appliances seemed to have a greater need for me to be able to quickly access the manuals. I moved them all to a special location in my kitchen and the rest of the manuals go in my laundry room.
And, if you don’t think that is particular enough, I have a sitemap. In the event that a family member is watching my child, I don’t want them hopelessly frustrated trying to figure out the dust-vac. I have a “map” of every appliance and the room where someone would need it. It then cross-references where the accessories are for that appliance and where the instructions are. Weird. I know.
When I was younger, I actually thought I may need some sort of intervention because of how specific my brain was in categorizing the information that came into my house. I used to file every article that crossed the threshold. That got to be exhausting. I literally had giant binders for topics. It was a bit OCD. I now realize that I don’t need to retain all information I come across as the internet is able to relocate almost all of it. I have to keep myself away from magazines and let the internet (and the document designers) do what they do best, catalog the information for retrieval.
As I read chapter 4, I was all over it. I have been doing most of it for years, even if I didn’t realize it. My binders of information actually take a lot of work to cross-references. While I know that I will only need some information, like when I’m cleaning or in the kitchen, for instance, I know my parents will access it randomly when watching my child. I make sure that they can find the vacuum manual more readily than I would require it. It is the first manual in my household binder.
This is much like the approach for structuring a website. I know my audience. I know what they need and I know where they will get lost trying to find it.