Making Meetings Meaningful

February 3, 2014

Communication is the bedrock of business, and in many situation a face-to-face discussion is the best way to exchange information, compare options, and make decisions.  So why do so many people hate meetings?  In most cases, it’s because neither the organizer nor the attendees have prepared properly, so a significant amount of everyone’s time is wasted. To make the most of meetings, and of your and your colleagues’ time, follow a few simple guidelines.


Every meeting needs an agenda, with date, location, list of times and topics, and goals.  The agenda and background materials should be sent to all attendees well ahead of time, so everyone can read and digest the information. Ideally, preparing for upcoming a meeting causes attendees to get their materials and ideas organized, so they are ready to jump into discussions in the meeting. Meetings should begin promptly – waiting for late attendees is discourteous to those who were on time, and encourages others to be late in the future.  During the meeting, stick to the published timeline, and make notes of items that need to be addressed later (discussions that were recessed for time, or a decision with no clear consensus).


Invite everyone who needs to be there, and no one who doesn’t.  Does the person providing background information need to be present to answer questions, or will their written report suffice?  Does the person who will make the final decision need to attend the preliminary discussions, or will the summary provide enough information?  If there are multiple items on the agenda, does everyone need to be present for all of them, or can they be grouped?  If you respect people’s time and only include them when really needed, they will be more willing to attend.


Everyone at the meeting should be focused on the meeting.  If attendees are checking email, texting, tweeting and having side discussions, they are not present mentally.  Do they need to be present physically?  While there are generational differences in technology usage, the meeting organizer should make clear what is acceptable and what it not.


Often, the most important person at a meeting is the scribe who takes the meeting minutes.  This list of decisions made, unresolved issues, and action items (with responsible parties and deadlines) is the official record.  All attendees should be provided with the minutes as soon as possible after the meeting, with a deadline for additions or corrections.  During the meeting, you should be taking your own notes of items for which you are responsible, and make sure those reconcile with the official record.  If this is a recurring meeting, the organizer should end the meeting on a positive note, and confirm the date, time and location of the next meeting.

Meetings are a fact of professional life, and new technology is making meetings with geographically distant colleagues even easier. However, since time is one of our most valuable resources, putting in the effort up front to prepare, and thus minimize the time spent in meetings will pay dividends in both increased productivity and the gratitude of your colleagues.

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Are you Engaged?

July 22, 2013

A recent Gallup Poll on the state of the American workplace ( looked at trends in U.S. employee engagement, and the impact of engagement on organizational and individual performance. While we all know that correlation is not causation, there is some interesting information, and some food for thought about your own employment status.


This survey is not new; it has been given to more than 25 million employees across a variety of industries since the late 1990s.  There are 12 main questions that are invariant.  They include statements such as “I know what is expected of me at work”, “In the last seven days I have received recognition or praise for doing good work”, and “This last year, I had opportunities at work to learn and grow.”  Based on their responses to these statements, employees are grouped into one of three categories – engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged.


“Engaged employees” are those who “work with passion and feel a profound connection to their company.  They drive innovation and move the organization forward.”


“Not engaged” employees are “essentially checked out.  They’re sleepwalking through their workday, putting time – but not energy or passion – into their work.”


“Actively disengaged” employees are those who are not just unhappy at work, but “they’re busy acting out their unhappiness.  Every day, these workers undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish.”


I think we can all agree that there are some people who love their jobs and are always happy to be there, others who are just going through the motions and doing the minimum required, and a few who seem to be actively causing harm. (And we may move between categories at different points in time). According to this survey, about 30% of all employees currently are engaged, 52% are not engaged, and 18% are actively disengaged.  These numbers have not changed significantly since at least 2000 (earliest date reported).


There are some things companies do that affect employee engagement.

For example, organizations that were currently letting people go had a significantly lower percentage of engagement than those that were not (13% vs. 43%).  This is not surprising – if you’re worried you’re going to lose your job, you are going to distance yourself from it as a matter of self-preservation.


What might be surprising is that while workplace benefits (vacation, bonuses, flextime and so on) were nice, they did not correlate with increasing engagement. In other words, if you don’t enjoy your work, providing a free lunch or masseuse on-site does not make you feel better about it.  You may feel more positively towards the company in general, but you will not be more engaged in your work.


With all the discussion lately on benefits or costs of working remotely, this survey looked at engagement as a function of time spent working remotely.  Remote workers averaged 4 hours per week more than on-site workers, and those who worked remotely less than 20% of the time were slightly more engaged in their work than other groups.  It appears that there is an optimal balance between time in the office interacting with co-workers, and the freedom to work wherever is most efficient.


In addition to conducting surveys, Gallup also provides advice to companies, and they have three strategies to help companies improve their employee’s engagement.  Perhaps some of these will help you improve your own engagement with your job.


First, people are important. Good managers are those who genuinely care for their people, care about performance, and are willing to invest in talented people.  Co-workers who are engaged in their work will help spread the enthusiasm.  Does your manager and co-workers have a positive, encouraging attitude, or do they make it difficult to enjoy what you do?


Secondly, employees are more engaged when they can use and build on their strengths, as opposed to the more common practice of focusing on people’s weaknesses.  Someone who is adequate at a particular task will probably never become stellar, no matter how often their deficiencies are pointed out to them.  However, someone who is pretty good at a particular task can probably become outstanding with a reasonable amount of encouragement and effort.  This not only improves the individual, but overall productivity as well.


Finally, engaged employees were found to be generally in better health, and to have healthier habits than other employees.  So not only is it good for your career, but being passionate about your job actually correlates with improvement in other parts of your life as well.


How engaged are you in your work?  If the answer is “not very”, what are you going to do to change that?



This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.




Culture Shock

July 15, 2013

The other day, I was talking to a college student who had recently started his summer job.  He had a job that was very similar to what he had done the previous summer, but in a different place.  This meant he was doing mostly the same type of work, but with a brand new group of people.  As he described the differences between the two workplaces, I realized what he was talking about was the difference in cultures between the two locations.

Each location had similar numbers of staff and customers, similar tasks that needed to be done, and similar metrics for success.  However, they had very different cultures.

While both sites completed all their tasks on time (especially the customer facing tasks), one location took extra pride in striving for excellence, exceeding expectations, and completing tasks early.  The members of this staff made an extra effort to look out for each other; actively seeking out ways to help each other, leading to an enhanced sense of teamwork and camaraderie.  They socialized with each other during their off hours, as opposed to the second site where they were  friendly while at work, but happy to go home to their “real lives” and real friends.  After having worked in the former environment, this more distant attitude came as quite a surprise to him.

The single difference that was most striking to him was in how each group handled it when they were asked to do something that they’d never done before.  In one site, if a staff member did not know how to do something, they would ask someone to show them how, and then practice until they could do it perfectly.  In the second location, if asked to do something they’d never done before, most people would find someone else who knew how to do it, and then ask them to take care of it.

While the latter course is certainly the most efficient in the short term (let everyone do what they do best, and already know how to do), it may not be most effective in the long run (what happens if that one person is not available at a crucial time, or leaves the company altogether?).  Both strategies have their place, and it is the job of the manager/supervisor to guide the staff into learning which is most appropriate for that particular company.

Most people are naturally inclined to work one way or the other.  Some people prefer to do the same thing over and over at work, and derive great satisfaction from being the very best at that particular task.  Others are not happy unless they are challenged, and are constantly looking for new things to learn and variety.   My interactions would seem to indicate that most scientists are naturally curious people, who want to know how and why things work, and are excited by the opportunity to do something new.  My friend certainly fell into this camp – his exact words about his new co-workers were “I could have forgiven them for not knowing, if they had shown any interest in wanting to learn.  Instead, they just got someone else to do it for them.”  In his mind it was slacking off, not being efficient to ask the expert to do the task.

To him, learning how to do new tasks was part of his job, and having someone do it for him was unacceptable.  A different staff member might have said “It’s all about being efficient, and getting the job done.  There’s no sense wasting time figuring out how to do something, if someone else already knows.”

When we talk about the culture of a company, we are really talking about a collection of small differences like this, which combine to create the atmosphere in which we work.  When the way you like to work matches that of the organization for which you work, you feel comfortable and confident in what you are doing.  When they don’t match, you just may be unhappy without realizing why.


This article was written by Lisa M. Balbes, Ph.D. of Balbes Consultants LLC.  Lisa is a freelance technical writer/editor and author of: “Nontraditional Careers for Chemists:  New Formulas for Chemistry Careers,” published by Oxford University Press.

Dealing with Chronic Complainers in the Workplace

February 25, 2013

Every workplace has some people who are chronic complainers. Greater workplace stress due to recent staff reductions has increased worries. In addition, high workloads due to staff reductions and limited hiring in many workplaces have increased many people’s tendency to complain. About 18% of U.S. employees are “actively disengaged,” negative and likely to complain about their employers, according to an annual Gallup poll of 31,265 employees. This negativity can spread like a cancer according to Jim Harter, Gallup’s chief scientist for workplace management and well-being.

Listening to their complaining can sap your own productivity according to Wall Street Journal jobs columnist Sue Shellenbarger. Over-exposure to workplace negativity can disrupt learning, reduce focus and affect one’s judgment according to Stanford University neurology professor Robert Sapolsky. As more chemical workplaces shift from offices to cubicles, it becomes harder to avoid these complainers. What can you, do to reduce or limit the harmful effects of chronic complainers?

You could reduce your exposure to chronic complainers by spending some of your time working in a different location such as the company library or a home office. Turn the tables on the complainer by asking what he or she intends to do about the problem. Alternatively, when the complainer gripes about a coworker or manager, suggest that this person talk directly to the source of the complaint and politely terminate the conversation. If your workplace has an ombudsman to whom employees can take their workplace problems, suggest that the coworker take their complaint to this individual. Many organizations also have a viable Human Resources office with Business Partners that are skillful in handling these situations or offering sound advice.

Manager tactics

If you’re the manager of a chronic complainer schedule a conversation with the individual. Don’t let them reduce your own productivity by interrupting what you are doing. Let them know you not only want to hear their complaints but focus on them. This conveys your willingness to listen and limits the effect of their complaining on your own productivity, the teams, and other departments across the organization Set an agenda for this meeting. Allow a certain amount of time for complaints. Then move on from the complaints to a discussion of solutions for at least some of the problems. That way the discussion will be more than just a litany of complaints.

Many complainers just want to be heard. Practice effective listening skills and control your desire to argue with and interrupt the complainer. Indicate focus by avoiding distractions like checking your e-mail, glancing at your watch or even checking a mobile device. Use appropriate body language like occasionally nodding your head. Don’t indicate disagreement at this stage of the conversation. At the end of the allotted time for listening, ask the complainer if they want your perspective. If they don’t, conclude the conversation by saying something like, “I hope I was able to provide a secure sounding board for you to vent about your situation.” or “Thank you for sharing with me, I’m glad you trust me to listen to you.”

If the complainer does want your perspective don’t be overly negative. Instead possibly begin by giving your advice by saying, “If I were in this situation I would….” You could also state something like, “You have made valid points, but if I may help you see both sides…” Should the complainer disagree or thinks your advice won’t work, limit the discussion by saying, “Okay, thank you for at least allowing me to listen and offer a neutral opinion.” Then conclude the conversation and go back to work.

If this approach doesn’t work, shift the emphasis to the positive. When the person starts complaining, try to shift the conversation back to the positive by asking what seems to be going well. Get the complainer to focus on the positive by changing their attitude to some degree. Sometimes complainers can expose a real problem. If this is the case, ask the person to come back to you with a realistic solution to the problem or seek out their manager or Human Resources specialist.

One thing to consider is whether there is a serious mismatch between the complainer and their work assignment. If so the solution may be reassignment to another position or enrollment in a course to enhance a skill deficit. Persistent complaining can be incredibly annoying. Try to surround yourself with people who bring you up rather than down. I do try very hard to do this when choosing my own project teams.

John Borchardt was a chemist, freelance writer and devoted ACS career consultant for over 15 years, until his sudden passing in January 2013. He was the author of the ACS/Oxford University Press Book “Career Management for Scientists and Engineers,” and had more than 1500 articles published in a variety of magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias. As an industrial chemist, he held 30 U.S. and more than 125 international patents, and was the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed papers. John’s advice, insights and articles helped hundreds of scientists improve their professional lives, and he will be truly missed.