Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 3

Third in a series.  Links to earlier parts can be found at the bottom of this post.

#3 Don’t Ask Questions in Large Meetings

Every company I’ve been with has special meetings.  These meetings are held to talk about results, plan for next year, introduce new products or services, hold training, etc.  The difference between these meetings and more run-of-the-mill meetings is that they are generally non-participatory.  Speakers speak and presenters present, but these meetings aren’t sites for group discussion and debate.  I think you get the picture.

Inevitably, at the end of each presentation, at the end of a day, or at the end of a multi-day conference, the emcee will say “Are there any questions?”  When that happens, I recommend that you sit quietly with your hands folded on the table.

Am I a bit cynical?  Yes.  For me, this boils down to a question of risk versus reward.  For me, the rewards are small, and the risks are great.  If you really, really have a question, then wait until after the meeting and ask your boss.  That should be your plan.

Let’s look at the risks and rewards of asking a question in a room with anywhere from 50 to 1,000 people.


  • More people know who you are. You almost always have to say your name and where you are from when you rise to ask a question.  This is irrelevant, of course, for small companies where everyone knows everyone anyway.
  • People know you are brave and take risks. Some people just don’t have the gumption to ask the CEO of a Fortune 500 company a question.
  • You get an answer to a question and others may have wanted to ask the same question. Sometimes, you just ask the right question, for the audience and the speaker.


  • More people know who you are. Do you want to be discovered because people see you asking a question at a meeting or because you do great work and build relationships?  Don’t let this be the first or major impression of you that others have.
  • People know you are brave and take risks. For many managers, they want someone who is a bit more serene, a bit more controlled.  They view speaking out at these meetings as a negative.
  • You get an answer to a question and other may have wanted to ask the same question. This is a bit like the old Life cereal commercials.  “Let’s get Mikey to ask.  He’ll ask anything.”  It is not good to be known as the one who will always ask questions.

Do you see a pattern here?  There are more risks:

  • You hit a hot button. Even with best intentions, you ask the wrong question and the answerer reacts negatively.
  • You throw up a “softball” question and are seen as a brown nose. “Sir, why do you think this is a great place to work?”
  • You are viewed as a trouble-maker or as outspoken. “Maggie always asks a question.  Can’t she just leave well enough alone?”

And here’s the thing — no one ever forgets.  Think about your own company for a second.  Who asks questions at big meetings?  I’ll be you can name one or two people instantly, can’t you?

With the risks outweighing the rewards and people never forgetting who asked the questions (even good questions), I’ve learned that it’s better to let others ask, sit quietly, and, if needed, talk to your boss or a confidante later.

Previous parts:

#1 Don’t Complain or Make Waves
#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back


Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 2

(This is the second post in an ongoing series for Friday’s post about work.  These posts are some guidance to others after my 20+ years in companies ranging in size from Fortune 10 to three people.  Topics are presented in no particular order.  Go to the bottom of this post for links to earlier posts.)

#2 Don’t Talk Negatively About Anyone Behind Their Back

There are many reasons not to talk negatively about anyone behind their back, but I think they all boil down to three:

  1. The person you are criticizing will find out.
  2. It makes you look bad.
  3. Not talking negatively makes you look good.

Before you criticize someone behind their back, assume they will find out and consider the repercussions.   Imagine that person coming to your desk and saying “I heard you said [this] about me.  Did you really say that?”   Do you feel comfortable with that person standing in front of you asking that?  Do you want to answer?  If you find yourself saying “sure, I’ll talk to them about it,” then perhaps you should go directly to them for some constructive criticism and keep the topic just between the two of you.

Why will they find out?  They will find out because the person (or people) you are telling will tell someone else what you said or go directly to the person whom you are criticizing.  (You must assume no trust in the workplace, which we’ll talk about next week.) The person you are telling might do so with the best of intentions.  You can imagine them going to the criticized person and saying something innocuous like “You know what?  Fred thought you could have done a better job on that report, and I think he’s right.  I was going to come talk to you as well.”  Although they are trying to help your mutual co-worker, they have revealed you were talking behind their back.  Not good.

Not only do you look bad when the person finds out, but you look bad regardless. You look bad because, as I wrote last week, no one likes a complainer or a negative person.  But here there is more.  Studies have proven that when we criticize someone to others, the negative factors reflect right back on us.  Thus, when you criticize someone for any reason, you open the door to others looking at you in a similar way.  If you say that Bob talks too fast, people wonder if you talk to fast.  If you say Bob dresses badly, people wonder if you dress badly.  In short, you end up looking just as bad as the person you are criticizing.  Why go there?   Leave negative thoughts about you some place else.

Conversely, if you don’t openly criticize people behind their back, your coworkers view you positively, and the hallway gossips have nothing to complain about.  You want to be the one that is viewed as getting along with everyone and liking everyone.  Keep in mind, I’m not telling you not to have negative thoughts about coworkers or that you must like all your coworkers.  I’m suggesting that you avoid criticizing others behind their backs.  Nothing good can come of it.

Never start those conversations yourself. When a group starts to talk about someone not there, either excuse yourself or stay quiet.  If someone provides an obvious opening for you to be critical, don’t fall in the trap.  Here are a two examples of traps that can easily grab you:

Example #1

Them:  Do you really think Fred will survive under the new boss?  Wow, that should be a challenge.

Wrong answer:  I think he can survive.  Fred definitely has his moments where he drives too hard, too fast, but he’s very competent. Even though you’ve closed with a compliment of Fred, your negative comment is just unnecessary and invites the problems we’ve cited above.

Right answer:  I hadn’t thought about it.  I’m sure the two of them will figure it out.

Example #2

Them:  If I ever have to work on another project with Fred, I’m going to kill myself.  What an ignorant, self-centered, jerk!

Wrong answer:  I am so sorry.  I have had my moments with him as well.  As much as I try to ignore him, it doesn’t work. You haven’t been as overt as your co-worker, but you are agreeing with her, which is the same as criticizing Fred.  The door is open for her to say to her boss, “I won’t work with Fred again. [You] feels the same way.”  Ouch.

Right answer:  I am sorry that you are frustrated.  You might talk with Fred or his boss, but that’s your call.  What are you doing for lunch?

Following my advice above is tough.  None of us like everyone with whom we work.  The trick is keeping it to ourselves.


Previous Posts

1. Don’t Complain or Make Waves.

Things About Work I Wish I Knew Earlier – Part 1

(This is the first post in an ongoing series for Friday’s post about work.  These posts are some guidance to others after my 20+ years in companies ranging in size from Fortune 10 to three people.  Topics are presented in no particular order.)

#1 -Don’t Complain or Make Waves

Seems obvious, right?  No one likes a complainer.

What I’ve learned, however, is that this is an absolute statement.  Never complain about anything or even joke complain about anything.  Seriously.

  • Don’t like the food in the cafeteria?  Don’t tell anyone.  Don’t eat there or find something you like.
  • Think the elevator is slow?  Don’t even joke about it.  Take the stairs.
  • Don’t like the pens the company provides you?  Don’t say a word.  Buy your own.
  • Think your boss dresses poorly?  Keep that to yourself.  Deal with it.

I’ve learned that you can’t “joke complain” because there is truth at the root of all jokes and people know that. A joke complaint is when you say “Can they give me a smaller office?” as you pat your colleague on the back.

I’ve learned that you can’t “soft pedal” a complaint for the same reason.  You soft pedal a complaint when you say “You know, it’s not that big of a deal, but I wish we all had bigger offices.”

No one likes a complainer, because being with a complainer becomes tedious.  No one likes a complainer, because no one wants to be reminded of their own frustrations or complaints.  No one likes a complainer, because inevitably a complainer complains about a decision you made or a close friend made.

Your goal should be to have someone say the following about you:

I don’t know how he does it, but [you] never seems frustrated by anything around here.  It’s amazing that he never says anything negative about anything.  What a great guy.

When other describe you like that, they want you on their team, and they want you in their company.  They want to give you more work, and they want to promote you.

If you are like me, you will be frustrated.  Not complaining,  however, will get you a long way.

Is Gen Y Causing Us to Rethink Communications at Work?

Last Friday, I laid out some ground rules that covering blogging about work.  Now it’s time to see if I can write within those rules.

On Tuesday this week, I met with one of our summer interns at her request, answering questions about our company, my past career path, and her future career path.  Having just graduated from a local university, she was likely born in 1988 or 1989.  (Our HR department will be happy to know that I didn’t ask her to clarify.)

She and her peers, born late in Generation Y, bring a very different way of communicating to the workplace, one that I believe has the potential to conflict with work rhythms and schedules and traditions.  I am intrigued by the possibility that a shift in communication from telephone to social networking sites and text messaging can significantly impact the workplace.  And I think we could be headed for some challenges.

In 1988, when I came into the workplace (just as our intern was born), communication was via the telephone.  I had a telephone in my apartment.  As long as I was in my apartment, people could find me.  I did not have an email address in 1988.  When I wanted to make plans with friends I called them, left a voice mail, called them again, etc.

Now, 21-year-olds communicate with their mobile devices.  From those mobile devices they can text, tweet, update their status on Facebook, get email and, very rarely, talk live to someone.  When they want to get together with their friends, they post something on Facebook or start a chain of text messages.

In 1988, when I started at work, I got a desk, and I got a phone with my very own phone number.  I also got a laptop (an old Mac DuoDock), but no email yet and Internet access wasn’t even an option.  As long as I was at work, my girlfriend, family and friends could reach me in the office, although they had to remember a new number.

Now, when 2010 grads start work, new grads also get a desk and they get a phone with their very own phone number.  They get a computer with Internet access and their very own company email address.  They can use Facebook and email at their desks and Facebook and texting on their personal mobile devices to connect with friends.  Their friends don’t have to learn a new number.

But is it all this simple?

At many companies, Facebook, My Space and other social networking sites are blocked.  They are viewed as distractions, as are games and streaming video sites like You Tube.

At many companies, texting in meetings or texting constantly viewed as inappropriate and leaving one’s desk constantly to use your mobile device is also frowned upon at not professional.

My concern is that we are cutting of communications channels for this generation when we block these sites and frown on using mobile devices at work.  My concern is that cutting off Facebook and texting is similar to blocking all personal calls in and out of our phone lines, which would never be done.

Rather than view Facebook and other sites as a distraction, why not view them as a communication channel?  Why not measure work produced first and then allow communication with friends if the work is done on time and of high quality?  Playing Farmville is wrong, but communicating with friends about tonight’s plans?  Not so sure that is bad.

Will blocking Facebook limit your ability to hire Gen Y’s and the current generation?  Or, will allowing access to social network sites make your company more attractive.

These questions have no answers yet.  But if texting and social networking have replaced the phone and email as the primary methods of communication, perhaps it’s time that was recognized in the workplace.

Ground Rules for Blogging About Work

At my company, a large public company here in St. Louis, we sign annual confidentiality agreements before we get our bonuses and stock options.  It makes perfect sense to me, and I’m happy to sign.  This year, for the first time, the confidentiality agreement includes “external blogging” as one of the outlets in which we are prohibited from sharing confidential material.  I guess that’s a sign of the times.

When I thought about including posts here about “work,” my thoughts went to this annual agreement and the repercussions for breaking it:  termination.  That would be bad, especially in this economy and in a place as small as St. Louis.  Not disclosing confidential information is obvious, but this did get me thinking about some ground rules for blogging about work, and I offer them for you below.

I am only the latest person to think through ground rules.  Information Week posted an article titled “Blogging About Work Is Risky Business” all the way back in February 2005.  In this article they quote a lawyer who says:  “Ultimately, any blogger who chooses to discuss his or her job in an online forum may risk being terminated.”  Ouch.  However, if that’s the case, can I still blog about work every Friday.

I will try not to blog about work, but I do plan to blog about things related to work.  In my opinion, you can blog about the importance of project management, but you can’t blog about the current project you are working on and how good or poor the project manager is.  You can blog about lunch, eating in, eating out and post-lunch comas, but you can’t blog about the quality of the food in your cafeteria or the guy two cubes down who always brings in stinky food every day and eats it in his cube.

To help myself and perhaps some of the readers, I’ve come up with five ground rules for blogging about work that are designed to keep the writer out of the spotlight, in the job and still blogging.

  1. Publish posts that you will be comfortable emailing to your boss or your boss’s boss. 
  2. Assume your coworkers, past and present, are reading your blog as soon as you post and you want to make them happy.
  3. Broaden the definition of “Proprietary and Confidential” to include other materials. Err on the side of including things as “proprietary and confidential” and, therefore, don’t mention them in your blog.
  4. Avoid specifics and quantitative metrics whenever possible. This will help you with #1, #2, and #3 above. If a colleague reads a post and asks “were you talking about anyone here when you wrote . . . “, then you may not have been general enough.
  5. Don’t write an opinion post disagreeing with policies or processes or approaches at your current place of work. Be upbeat. A blog is not a soapbox to debate company policies or work direction already in place. Bad form. It is probably also a violation of rule #3.

A blog about work is an creative outlet for the author and a chance pass on knowledge from many years in the workplace. Following these ground rules, especially #1, will allow the writer to create insightful, thoughtful pieces, without incurring the wrath of management or coworkers, past and present.

Next Friday, when the Life With Spidey blog schedule brings me back to “work,” I’ll have a short piece about a concept called “Emotional Intelligence.”