I never know the ‘right’ thing to say in meetings, but wish I could contribute

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Each week, Dr Kirstin Ferguson tackles questions on the workplace, career and leadership in her advice column “Got a Minute?” This week: getting to know the word-to-wisdom ratio, wage theft and job application silence.

Credit: Illustration by Dionne Gain

In meetings, I don’t know how to contribute or what the “right” thing to say is. I fixate on thinking about what to say and lose focus, which is probably why I feel like I have nothing to add. I look around at other colleagues who effortlessly contribute outstanding insights and wish I could do that too. But I have no idea how to start.

Just because someone is talking, doesn’t always mean they are adding value. By observing what is going on and only speaking when you have something to add is true wisdom. If you are someone who only speaks infrequently but what you do say is worth listening to, your colleagues will value your infrequent contributions very much.

I coined something I call the “word-to-wisdom ratio” more than a decade ago, when I noticed I was the opposite of you – speaking up in meetings but not feeling I was adding much value. By contrast, I noticed some of my more experienced colleagues barely said anything at all, but every word they did say was gold. Basically, I felt it was taking me many words to add any wisdom and yet for them, it was very few.

Speaking up does not come naturally for everyone, so there a few things you might want to try. First, before the meeting, prepare a few thoughts or ideas to have on hand ahead of time. Think about the purpose of the meeting or the topic you are going to discuss and an aspect of it you have strong feelings about – note down why you think that way. Then, as the meeting progresses, add a few notes about things others are saying, which might prompt an idea. Focus on listening actively to what is being said by writing yourself notes – this should also keep you from zoning out. When the time is right, pause and breathe, then share your thoughts. Good luck!

My boss hasn’t paid me for a few months now and either promises it will be done the next day or just doesn’t answer my calls, sometimes for weeks at a time. I have received payslips, but nothing is coming into my account. What can I do?

If you have been working for free for a few months and your boss is intentionally not paying you and deliberately ignoring your calls, you need to seek advice immediately from Fair Work Ombudsman. This is wage theft. It is completely unacceptable and illegal, so you can also tip off the Australian Tax Office. If you belong to a union, contact them as well. Make sure you start getting all your paperwork together clearly showing how long it has been since you were paid, and examples of all payslips which show payments that have not gone into your designated account. If you are not being paid your wages, you are most likely also not being paid superannuation, so you should also check your super account too.

The longer you continue to work without being paid, the more indebted your boss is becoming to you (and no doubt others), so I would get on to this straight away. I suspect any hope you have of your boss following through on his commitment has long passed. I would also start looking for a new job as soon as possible.

I’ve been applying for jobs, and I am finding many organisations don’t bother responding to applications to confirm whether you have received an interview. Jobs can be scarce in my field, meaning I may wish to apply again at the same organisation. What should I do?

This seems to be becoming more and more a part of the job hunting landscape and I suspect it has worsened by the many jobs which require you to apply online without a “real” person you can contact for updates.

To try and counter this, I would be applying for as many roles as you can – including within the same organisation – and explain in your cover letter you are eager to work with them, and make reference to any earlier application you may have submitted. In a scarce job market, I would plan to have as many applications on the go at once, so you can maximise your chances. Even if one application progresses to the interview stage, keep the other applications on foot. It is only once you have a firm job offer you should feel safe to withdraw from the process.

To submit a question about work, careers or leadership, visit kirstinferguson.com/ask (you will not be asked to provide your name or any identifying information. Letters may be edited).

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