how can I contribute more at meetings when I’m new to my job?

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A reader writes:

I’m several weeks into a job, and I feel like I should be bringing more to the table. I have about 1.5 years experience in the overall industry (and in post-college work in general) but I’m brand new to the niche my company focuses on. The company is small and everyone except me has anywhere from 2-20 years experience doing exactly what we do. I don’t know much about how the industry/my company works yet, and I’m fairly new to the city as well, so I’m in the dark about most of the things they talk about or make references to.

I know this is probably one of those “give it time” situations, but do you have any suggestions as to how I can learn more to contribute when we have meetings?

Yes, it’s a “give it time” situation. It’s really normal that three weeks into a new job, and with less than two years of work experience, you don’t have a ton to contribute at meetings, especially meetings with people with much more experience. Simply listening and taking it all is very normal at the stage you’re in, and I promise you that your coworkers almost certainly don’t think anything of it. In fact, if anything, they’re grateful that you’re approaching it that way, rather than being oblivious to the fact that you might not quite understand how things work yet. The latter is really obnoxious; what you’re doing makes perfect sense.

That said, one option is to talk with your manager after some of these meetings and ask about pieces that weren’t entirely clear to you. For instance: “Susan was talking about X, and I realized I’m not sure how that works. Is there some context you can give me so I better understand it?” You want to use some judgment with these questions, of course; it might not make sense to ask your boss to spend time explaining X to you if X is hugely complicated and will never have anything to do with your job, and you don’t want to pepper her with dozens of questions after every meeting … but pick out the things that seem most important and ask about those.

There might be others you can ask too; it doesn’t just need to be your boss. In fact, a lot of people really like being asked for their expertise and will be happy to talk with you.

But don’t lose sight of the fact that it’s only been three weeks. Most people are still trying to learn names and remember where the bathrooms are at three weeks into a new job. You’re probably going to feel overwhelmed for quite a few weeks longer, and that’s normal. Don’t beat yourself up for it, keep listening, and eventually much of this is probably going to start clicking into place.

{ 52 comments… read them below or add one }

  1. Steve G

    The only thing I would contribute is an occassional low-key “sorry, what is xxxxx, I’m new….sorry to interrupt,” but besides that it is contribution in and of itself to attend and listen attentively, unless they intend you to be managerial and lead.

    Let me tell you, every time we talk about one of my coworkers in another location, someone inevitably retells the story of his 3rd week when we all converged at a corporate office, and he kept making blanket statements in an assertive voice such as “it is imperative we drive revenue for customer satisfaction,” presumably to impress someone (don’t know who).

    Don’t be that person! The worst thing is, he is totally nice besides that.

    Reply
    1. Jess

      I agree with Steve G – a polite and humble question for clarification will show you are taking initiative and care that you understand.

      Reply
      1. Mike C.

        Presumably the meeting wasn’t called to show everyone else that one is “taking initiative” and “cares that you understand”, but rather for real work to be completed instead.

        Reply
    2. A Bug!

      I agree with this but would watch out for apologizing too much. Once should suffice – “Sorry to interrupt, but I’m not familiar with X.”

      The question is presumably a valid one, so acting like it’s wasting meeting time addressing it only invites the rest of the attendees to do the same. (And, of course, spending time apologizing multiple times is an actual waste of meeting time!)

      Reply
    3. Mike C.

      Why would you waste everyone’s time asking for a definition everyone else knows rather than just asking someone after the fact? It’s not contributing a single thing to the meeting, and it’s wasting the time of people who are there to learn something new.

      Reply
      1. AgilePhalanges

        I’m new to the department I’m in, and am often unaware of what certain acronyms or terms mean. I usually jot it down at the first mention, but if it’s mentioned quite a few times and is knowing its definition seems to be getting more critical to understanding the entire meeting, I’ll whisper to a neighbor to ask what it means, instead of interrupting the entire meeting for a definition I’m the only one that doesn’t know.

        However, if something comes up that I don’t understand, and there seem to be a few other confused faces, or I know for a fact there are others newer to the topic than me, I’ll ask aloud for the benefit of others who might be too shy to speak up.

        It doesn’t make sense to sit through an entire meeting you don’t understand because of one or two terms you can quickly get the definition for. In fact, if asking for the meaning after the fact means having to piece together the whole presentation in retrospect, you’ll lose a LOT of useful information doing it that way.

        Reply
      2. BW

        Because it is not very efficient to have someone sitting in a meeting for 60+ minutes listening to people talk about how much ABC is needed in the mix to reach our goal of 100% more CTS and have no idea what anyone is talking about. It takes less than a minute for someone to stop and say, “ABC means Absolutely Best Chocolate and CTS is Chocolate Teapot Sales.” Taking that brief time to clarify an acronym can cut off a lot of confusion right at the get go. Having someone sit there in a meeting wondering what the heck everyone is talking about ABC and CTS is a waste of time.

        Reply
        1. Mike C.

          But it’s not a contribution in and of itself. You say, “I’ll only take a minute”, but at some point you have to take the responsibility of reading the agenda, doing some pre-meeting research and making sure that you’re aware of what it is your company is actually doing.

          And furthermore, there’s always going to be more meetings. So what if you don’t know what ABC and CTS mean the first time around? Ask about it later when you aren’t wasting time and be that much better prepared for the next time.

          Don’t be that person wasting time asking questions that can be answered later.

          Reply
          1. EM

            I have to agree with Mike C. An admin assistant at my company would cause our weekly meetings to grind to a screeching halt because she was constantly asking what certain acronyms meant. The worst part was that she personally didn’t need to know what ABC meant, because the person she was note taking for did indeed know what it meant. If she really wanted to know, she could have googled it or asked someone what it meant after the meeting. I even took her aside one day telling her I’d be happy to help her out with unfamiliar acronyms after the meeting, but it didn’t stop the behavior.

            I think it’s fine to ask a neighbor quietly to define an acronym, but I think it is far more productive to just find out later rather than interrupt an entire meeting. People understand you’re new, and I think one of the best contributions a new person can make is take it upon themselves to learn all they can as quickly as possible. Asking people is fine, but many will get annoyed if they are peppered with questions that can be answered independently with a little research.

            Reply
            1. BW

              If a meeting is being brought to a screeching halt because someone asked a simple question, the problem lies with the person facilitating the meeting, not the question asker. A good chair/facilitator knows how to keep the meeting on track without being totally derailed by a straightforward question that takes a minute to answer. If the question or answer is more complex, it’s easy enough to tell the asker you’ll be happy to talk with them separately after the meeting.

              IMHO people should not get attitude or be discouraged for asking legit questions, and I say that as a person who doesn’t like asking a lot of questions. It is a huge waste of everyone else’s time though to not ask and do something wrong or struggle to do something that someone else has to go back and fix and explain.

              I run a lot of meetings, and seriously I’d rather have someone pipe up for a 30 second clarification of something and be able to understand and contribute immediately than sit there confused the whole time. It’s *my* job to keep the meeting on track. If I let it go off because I can’t redirect people back on topic quickly, that’s on me, not the asker and not the people in the room who may get distracting by trying to be helpful.

              I say this because I feel like I’m reading some negative attitude about people who ask questions and that this is being discouraged or that this is nothing other than an annoyance for someone being stupid enough not to either already know something or not know enough to sit and pretend the know what’s going on in a meeting. Meetings are for getting work done, not sitting there pretending that you get it. A good facilitator makes sure the work gets done and people understand what they have to do. Part of that is occasionally fielding a question and not letting that get out of hand. It’s hard to have a productive discussion with people trying to blindly wing it because they don’t want to ask a question. Again, if it’s that much of a disruption, just say you’ll address it outside of the meeting and move on.

              /off soapbox.

              Reply
          2. fposte

            I’d say it’s meeting dependent to some extent–I have a ton of meetings where people are caught up during the meeting, but they’re clearly more casual. However, I’m of your view when I’m joining an established group at a more high-level and formal meeting–then my practice is to note all the acronyms, players, etc., I don’t recognize and to look them up later. I’m there to travel at the speed of the meeting–the combined labor costs of everybody in that room make it absurd for them to stop while I get an explanation of what XYZ is.

            Reply
  2. K

    I used to feel self-conscious about this when I started working; but it’ll pass with time and when you naturally start having things to contribute, you will.

    In the meantime, I do think there are effective things you can do:

    1) Take good notes. That’s hard to do when you’re talking, so the more senior people might well not be, and if a question comes up about what was discussed at an earlier meeting it is appropriate for you to chime in with “my notes say X, Y, and Z.”

    2) Make sure you have copies of all documents that are likely to be discussed. It looks better to be able to follow along and, again, if a question arises as to what one of them says, it’s appropriate to point to them.

    3) If there are particular substantive issues you do understand and do have experience in, keep very on top of those so you can chime in with a brief, detailed answer where other people might not be able to. (For instance, taking an example from the law world, a new law firm associate might be better equipped than anyone else to chime in regarding an obscure point of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, which are studied in law school but easy to forget about if you don’t use them all the time.)

    (But, it goes without saying, do not try to steer the conversation around to that obscure point.)

    Reply
  3. Cath@VWXYNot?

    Taking occasional notes during the meeting (nothing formal – just for your own use) is another great way to show that you’re keen and interested. It will be noticed! I prefer pen and paper to laptop, because if someone other than the official scribe is tapping away on a laptop during a meeting I do tend to wonder if they’re just checking email or something… but go with what seems to be normal in your office

    Reply
    1. Mike C.

      You should be taking notes because you’re hearing information that you’ll need to refer back to, not to impress your coworkers.

      Reply
  4. Runon

    For specific things I would actually suggest a little bit more you driven approach to things, especially when you are assigned something. Go to your boss or the project/program/whatever lead and say “So my understanding is that I’m going to create a sample list of acronyms for the industry for new people coming in. Things like WASD and QWERTY. Using research tools like going thru the intranet and looking for acronyms and industry terms and pulling those into one document. Can you suggest who I’d go to if I don’t understand a term and can’t figure it out on my own? And is there anything I missed?”
    This lets your boss know you were listening and see which page you are on rather than having your boss point you to the page and then you say uhhuh and neither of you is quite sure it all makes sense.

    I’m a big proponent of say what you think you understand and then go from there. Even when you are new.

    Reply
  5. BW

    I can relate to this. I was on one project that so large and complex where most people agreed it took about 6 months to get up to speed due to the complexity and whatnot. My only advice is be attentive, take notes, and ask questions either during or outside of the meeting as needed.

    My old manager on that particular project put together a glossary of project-related terms and acronyms (it was quite long!) to give out to people. It was beneficial for veterans and nubs alike. She did that because when she started on the project she found it a very steep learning curve. Putting information like this together helped her learn some of it while also making it easier for everyone else down the line who could now just refer to the project glossary instead of having to stop and ask someone what this, that, or the other thing meant.

    People were always happy to explain something in their area of expertise as well. A couple of people I worked with liked to make tip sheets or some quick reference that they were happy to share with others. There are probably copies of past meeting minutes saved somewhere that you might find helpful to skim through to help get you up to speed on the discussions.

    Reply
  6. Michelle

    You should ask questions from time to time and share thoughts or insights from your unique perspective – as an outsider. Don’t devalue your insights as this fresh outlook will only last a short time. Soon enough you will be immersed in the culture and have sufficient knowledge to have an insider’s view of topics. With this gain of knowledge you will lose your ability to see issues like someone from outside of your organization. Think of yourself as the “man on the street” and voice your opinions on their behalf.

    Reply
    1. -X-

      Another thing is that if you think you have something to contribute but are not sure it’s appropriate and hold back, see if any one else raises the same or a similar point. If that happens more than once, it probably means you’re up to speed enough to trust your judgement and speak out more.

      Reply
  7. anon in tejas

    It was difficult for me to make the transition from being a full time student to being a full time employee. There was a lot to learn, and it was really difficult for me.

    Please be aware that there is such thing as a learning curve. For me and my profession, it took me about a year to really “find my footing.” I recently took a new position with a new agency about 8 months ago, and it took about 6 months to start feeling like I knew enough about the work, office culture, and climate to really start contributing and being a positive member of the team (as opposed to kinda holding back the team a little as the newbie).

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. Here are some things that helped me.

    1) enlist a few trusted coworkers that you can to go with stupid questions (i.e. what does this acronym stand for? where do I find this document/file? where do I save this work for boss to see?) Don’t bother your boss with these questions. It may be helpful to ask your boss who you can turn to with these questions, if they are not immediately available.
    2) Write a list of more serious questions to address with your boss. And try to meet with him or her to get these questions addressed. Don’t be too pushy, if your boss doesn’t want a set one-on-one, but take advantage if there is an open door policy. Just make sure to not intrude too much on your boss’s schedule and popping in there all the time for “easy” stuff.
    3) keep track of your own accomplishments. It may feel overwhelming and that there are some days when you can’t get anything right. Just know that you can, and you’re growing and developing and getting better. For me this helped when I had days where I felt like I got everything wrong or missed some detail my more experienced counterparts would catch.

    Reply
  8. LA

    “Most people are still trying to learn names and remember where the bathrooms are at three weeks into a new job.”

    This. Hilarious because I have an email thread going with one of my coworkers who started on the same day as me three weeks ago to discuss people’s names and mnemonic devices we could use to remember them.

    It’s difficult to feel this way in meetings, especially coming from a company where I vitally knew the ins and outs of everything. Now, I sit back and listen in all of my meetings and feel like people think I’m not qualified/interested in my job enough to ask questions. It’s really just in my nature though to observe things for a while before speaking up. Keep your manager in the loop, I talk to mine before and after meetings to just try to follow up on major things I should research more and things that aren’t as important. I think it helps that she knows that I’m very interested in what I’m doing, I’m just still trying to find my way.

    Good luck, OP!

    Reply
    1. Elizabeth West

      Me too, and they’ve been including things that are relevant to starting a new job. I’m going to have a hard time getting caught up each evening, since I can’t read all day anymore!

      Reply
  9. Rachel B

    You can definitely start to distinguish yourself by being prepared for meetings. More senior people tend to have more jam packed meeting schedules and inboxes. Reading over agendas before meetings and bringing the right print-outs will be noticed and appreciated over time.

    Also, make an effort to say hello before the meeting starts. Even if you don’t have much to say during the meeting, you can still project that you’re interested and engaged from the onset, instead of being the man/woman who never talks.

    For meetings where you’re expected to talk, I find it helpful to prepare beforehand. For example, in our weekly department meetings, I jot down what projects I’m working on at my desk.

    Finally, you may want to test out asking or emailing your boss questions after a meeting. One of the younger guys on our team will send quick notes after a meeting (“You mentioned X software in our meeting, and I saw this article about their recent merger, etc”). It helped to show me that he’s a good researcher and paying attention, but it also takes the pressure off of him.

    Reply
  10. glennisw

    I think asking thoughtful, specific questions is fine. The real sin is when a new person decides he or she is somehow possessed of unique knowledge that will solve whatever problem the team is trying to overcome.

    I have a colleague who recently joined my department who is constantly speaking out at meetings to offer us her brilliant suggestions on how to do things we’ve been doing for years. She was hired for her financial expertise, which we’re grateful for, but she has little knowledge of our industry, so her suggestions are usually the strikingly obvious solution that we’ve already implemented.

    maybe it’s just her way. She recently stepped forward to give me advice about how to operate the heater that’s been in my office with me for seven years.

    Reply
    1. Sam

      Sigh. We’re having a similar experience with a new employee and it isn’t going over well. At all. In this case, the co-worker is a non-technical person but is sure full of unrealistic ideas/suggestions/complaints for IT to tackle. And if I hear, “this is how we did it at my old company…” one more time, I might have to respond with, “didn’t your old company go out of business?!”

      /rant

      Reply
    2. Lily

      Yes! However it helps to give specific instructions. “If you want to change this procedure, then I’d like you to be specific about the changes you think should be made and explain how they are an improvement on the old procedure.”

      Reply
  11. Anon

    Someone has probably said it but if you can know ahead of time the content of the meeting and read up, then you either won’t have as many questions or find that you can contribute something.

    But cut yourself some slack, as everyone has said you haven’t been their long. It’s okay to feel alittle bit out of the loop right now.

    Reply
  12. Mike C.

    A lot of folks here are forgetting the whole point of bringing together a group of coworkers in a single room. The point is not to sit there and make cargo cult attempts at “appearing professional” or “taking initiative” or “impressing senior management”. The meetings were not called for the purpose of making oneself look good, rather they were called to get a groups of minds together to solve a problem or relay information to each other.

    You want to impress people? Do your job. Don’t waste other people’s time with questions that can be asked outside of the meeting. Listen a lot. Take notes not because it makes you look good but because you are learning things you wish to retain for longer than ten minutes. Eventually you’ll have something productive to say and by then your contribution will be welcomed.

    Reply
    1. glennisw

      And – sidetracking a little, here, but – can I also add, if you’re there to meet about something, keep on topic.

      I can’t tell you how many meetings I’ve attended that begin in a preliminary ad hoc “meeting” about something else that just came up and concerns maybe half of the people at the table. It gets hashed out while the other attendees just sit there.

      And one manager has an annoying habit of posing a question and, if the answer lies with a person who isn’t at the table, she drops everything to go call that other person – and the meeting attendees sit there waiting for her to return with the answer. It’s hilarious, because since we spend so much time in pointless meetings, usually all she gets is the person’s voice mail. Then whenever she hears her phone ring down the hall, she leaps up from the meeting hoping it’s her call being returned.

      I’m beginning to be less and less tolerant of poorly run meetings in my old age!

      Reply
      1. ChristineH

        And – sidetracking a little, here, but – can I also add, if you’re there to meet about something, keep on topic.

        OMG yes!!!!

        Reply
  13. ChristineH

    My approach would probably be to jot down whatever it is you want to understand more about (an acronym, procedure, etc) so that you can ask outside of the meeting. It is very tempting to jump and ask about it right then and there–I’m sure I’ve been guilty of this myself–but it can distract from the meeting. Really, just take it all in as best you can. Over time, it will make more and more sense.

    Reply
  14. OP

    Thanks for the insights everyone. I should add that this is a very relaxed, small company (less than 10 people) so everything is pretty informal but organized. I have been taking notes and asking questions after meetings mostly (Mike C. would be proud) unless I’m asked for my opinion right there and can admit that I need clarification. Out of general curiosity, how long do you think it takes most people to feel comfortable in their new roles?

    Reply
    1. EM

      I think it depends on the complexity of the role and how familiar you are with it when you start. I’ve been at my current job almost 2 years, and it took me about a year to feel comfortable doing a particular task (which requires a college degree plus a certification course and in-depth knowledge of 3 different disciplines). There is another task that I did for several years at a previous job, and I felt comfortable doing that role even before I took a separate certification course for that at my current job.

      I wouldn’t be surprised if it takes you 6 months to a year before you start feeling like you know what you’re doing. And just when (if you work for a good company) you start feeling like you’re really getting the hang of something, you’ll be given a new role/task where you’ll be thinking to yourself, “what the heck am I doing?!?” all over again. :) Those are the best jobs; the ones where you constantly learn and grow.

      Reply
      1. Another Michelle

        This is reassuring. I’ve been at my new job for 3 months and it’s been non stop panic on my end because I dont feel Im picking it up quickly enough. My boss has graciously agreed to meet with me for a half hour every month to answer questions /give feedback though. Nothing like a hands off environment…..

        Reply
        1. Jamie

          Michelle – that sucks. I would have been lost when new with only a half hour a month and I’m pretty autonomous.

          In my job there are major things that come up annually and quarterly – so for me I would say it was a good year before I felt really comfortable with everything.

          I do think it was six months before I unclenched enough at work to think just maybe I was okay at this. It was my first IT job (coming from operations) and I did spend the first six months worried that even though I was completely honest about my skills from day one they would find out I was a fraud and fire me. I had total impostor syndrome for the first 6 months for sure.

          Reply
    2. Not So NewReader

      I would vote for 1 year, myself. But at the 4 month point it sooo much better than the 1 week point. And the six month point is sooo much better than the 3 month point.
      Incremental improvements. Nothing- oh *nothing*- is as tough as the first day.
      The note taking thing is excellent- it shows interest in the job and taking ownership for your acclimation to the new place. Let’s put it this way- if you weren’t taking knows they would be pretty PO’ed by now.
      The only thing I would add is perhaps there is something that you could volunteer to work on. I have spoken up to say “I would like to help with X.” The response came back “OH! You have experience with that? GREAT!” Just chose wisely what you volunteer for make sure its not going to get the coffee (unless everyone takes turns) and make sure it is something you are comfy with doing.

      Reply
  15. ewo054

    Sometimes it is better to not ask anything and take everything in during the first month or two.

    If you try to dig up something to ask, it will be obvious to the other attendees, even if for no other reason than they thought or did the same thing when they were new.

    Save it for when you have something legitimate to ask or contribute.

    Reply
  16. glennis

    I’m grateful to a boss I had that made a point of pacing the training for a new hire. Even though at the time, I felt she was slowing me down, in retrospect she helped me succeed by waiting until I’d mastered one thing before piling on something else.

    This is helping me as I train a new hire that I “share” with another staffer – I am holding firm on not flooding her with too much too fast.

    Reply
  17. Nameless

    When I was new in my industry (Accounting) I was tasked to research new things prior to the meetings. It seemed daunting at first but you can do it. Think of college when you researched a new topic and presented it to classmates and all the questions you had to anticipate. You can ask if you can research something for your boss, this will help you master the materials.

    Reply
  18. Chris Hogg

    An interesting read is a new book by Susan Cain entitled, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking .

    While it’s written specifically for introverts, I think everyone that works would find it helpful.

    You don’t seem like the type who would be, but don’t feel compelled to talk in meetings just for the sake of talking. People who are still and listen are often perceived as wise and competent :)

    Reply
  19. Anony

    I was thinking the same thing. I have just under 2 yrs of experience and I’m new to my team, however, I find it so hard to contribute something being that 1) I’m the most junior 2) everyone else has 3+yrs of experience. I felt so bored my first few weeks and felt like I did so much more at my old job.

    Reply
  20. Adam

    Interesting article. I basically agree with what the writer is saying.

    I just wanted to point out that listening quietly for understanding, and jotting down what doesn’t make sense is real work. It takes concentration and focus, and you will often feel tired at the end of a long meeting, even though you may have “contributed” nothing. I think this is why many people fail to make this effort.

    But I think if you keep it up and actually follow up on filling in the gaps in your understanding, you’ll be surprised how quickly you become one of the most knowledgeable people in the room.

    Reply

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