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Also in this compendium: How to handle training – and conflict

Should you go to that meeting in a few minutes? What about the one that you received an e-mail request on earlier today?

Usually we automatically say yes. But with meetings becoming a huge drag on our time – a seemingly endless series of sessions diverting us from more productive work – maybe you have to stop automatically agreeing.

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Julie Zhuo, product design vice-president at Facebook, says on that she is not a meeting hater, viewing them as a tool for communicating information to unblock decisions. But when a meeting shows up on our calendar thanks to a helpful colleague, we shouldn't treat it as gospel. You need to understand why your instinct is to attend:

– Not wanting to let somebody down: You like to be helpful and assume there's a good reason for the meeting. So you accept the request, even if you have more important things to do.

– Feeling a sense of inclusiveness: Often sessions are labelled "team meetings" or have that sensibility. You feel you should be there or otherwise you will imply you aren't fully committed to the team.

– Wanting to be in the know: A meeting may seem significant because senior leadership is attending or a big decision might be made. You are curious about what will be discussed and want to keep in the loop. "It's natural to want to be there, even if you aren't really an active participator. This is especially true if the outcome of the meeting is something that will affect your work," she writes.

Push back against those powerful feelings by following her rule of thumb for attendance. You should only show up at a meeting when (a) you believe your presence will affect the outcome or (b) you will be much more effective as a result of being there.

To test against that first criteria, she asks whether she will be an active participant in the session. "Do I speak up and contribute, or am I just sitting in the sidelines? Do I have a strong point of view about this topic? Is there someone else who can represent my point of view just as well or better? Will something be done less effectively if I'm not there?" she says.

To evaluate the second element, she asks whether she would have everything she needed if she read somebody's notes about what happened at the meeting. If the answer is yes, that's a signal she would not be learning much more by attending. But if she expects she will need to ask lots of clarifying questions, or if the issue being discussed is complex and subtle and she needs to understand the nuances to do her job well, she will attend even if not expecting to be an active participant.

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If the meeting doesn't meet those two criteria, she suggests you not attend. Your ego might rebel, as if you're deciding you are not important. But your other work is also important, so get the ego in control.

2. The seven elements of successful training

Training of managers and employees is too often an afterthought. Employment lawyer D. Albert Brannen encourages you to think of these seven aspects of training to get it right.

– Mandatory: All employees and managers need certain basic training, such as sales skills, safety requirements or harassment policies. These topics should not be optional.

– Practical: Training should impart real-world skills and knowledge that employees can see having an impact on performance. They usually have difficulty relating to overly academic training.

– Engaging: To remember and use the skills, it helps if the sessions are engaging, with interactive rather than passive learning. "One may even say that in today's world of excessive stimulation, attendees need to be entertained. At a minimum, the training should not be boring to attendees if they are to retain the information covered by the training," he says.

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– Regular: Training should occur on a regularly scheduled basis appropriate for the organization. It should be predictable, not episodic.

– Programmed or systematic: Training on individual topics should be integrated or organized into an overall system of training, perhaps producing synergies as the sum of the individual parts exceeds each element. "Not only will attendees learn about specific topics, they will feel their employer is committed to their advancement and engagement and there will be positive incidental effects of the training. They will believe their employer is organized and forward-looking and come to realize the employer expects the same attributes from them in the performance of their jobs," he says.

– Comprehensive: One-off classes may work on certain topics but it's preferable to have an overall training curriculum where employees learn about a broad range of topics.

– Documents: Make sure all training is documented, particularly when training is required by law.

3. How to make conflict work

Conflict is not an energy drain, but rather a source of positive energy, according to consultant Nate Regier. "Conflict is simply the gap between what we want and what we are experiencing at any point in time. This gap generates energy because humans are highly motivated to close the gap because it isn't comfortable," he says on the Lead Change blog.

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Often, of course, conflict turns negative. For healthy conflict you must be open and transparent about how you are feeling and what you want. That needs to be accompanied by a non-judgmental curiosity to explore options and look for creative solutions. Finally, gain clarity about your boundaries and principles.

In addition, he recommends:

– Share your feelings and learn about the feelings of others. Don't assume you know how they feel and don't disregard their feelings.

– In order to explain why you feel a certain way, describe the gap between what you want and what you are experiencing. "Don't blame others for your feelings or accuse them of malicious intent," he says.

– Clarify your non-negotiable boundaries and principles but without making threats, issuing ultimatums, or insulting or accusing others.

"Be patient," he stresses. "Don't give up."

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4. Quick hits

– One of the most valuable benefits you can offer software developers (and perhaps by extension other knowledge workers) is private offices and time to concentrate, according to Joel Spolsky, CEO of Stack Overflow, a site for developers.

– Ask team members to come to the next meeting with plans on how they will deal with the three biggest competitive concerns they face. Similarly, ask them to come with concrete suggestions to solve vulnerabilities or weaknesses they see in a division or department they don't lead. Make sure every unit is put on the hot seat.

– Companies often try to inspire the troops with stories of their leaders, such as McKinsey & Co.'s accounts about long-time managing director Marvin Bower's integrity or Starbucks tales of CEO Howard Schultz's commitment to social responsibility and employee welfare. But a new study, by Sean Martin of Boston College, finds that new employees exposed to such stories are no more committed to the organization's values nor more helpful to co-workers than those not exposed to such information. Instead, what has a positive impact is stories of the rank and file displaying corporate virtues since those are people newcomers can identify with.

– After Lands End CEO Federica Marchionni was ousted when her turnaround failed, Bryant University Management Professor Michael Roberto noted that she was working most of the time from an office in Manhattan and only visiting head office in Wisconsin one week a month: "You can have a bold vision, but you will not succeed as a leader if you can't build buy-in and commitment from people throughout the organization. How could working from an office halfway across the country have sounded like a sensible way to build support for her turnaround?"

– Women travelling on business should consider purchasing a safety alarm to carry in a bag or wear around their neck, says entrepreneur Susan Gunelius, and or pack a door-jammer that can be affixed to the hotel room door to keep intruders out. As well, keep the curtains in your room closed so people can't see if you are in the room alone and always keep the Do Not Disturb sign on the doorknob so nobody enters the room when you're not there.

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