The Pleasures of Committee Work

I have to admit I find the dynamics of watching a committee come together and work effectively peculiarly satisfying, which is an odd sort of confession to make. I am intrigued by the social interactions that need to develop if the committee is to gel, and equally intrigued by what underlies a committee becoming dysfunctional as, regrettably, some do.  These are not the internal committees where you know everyone really well before you start and so have your prejudices and preferences clearly in mind before you ever get round the table. No, these are the committees (for instance ad hoc grant giving committees) that may meet only once or at most a handful of times and where the members are by and large unknown to each other beforehand. Like a Shakespeare play or a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta there are some standard characters who crop up time and time again in marginally modified forms: not every committee has every variety but one can draw up a little list of those who never would be missed, as well as those no good committee should be without.  What follows is my own cast of characters drawn – needless to say in distorted form – as a distillation from the many committees I have enjoyed or endured.  All characters described in what follows should be regarded as purely fictional.  How many do you recognize?

Dr Mouse

I will start with this person not because they are the most irritating but because they seem so ubiquitous. To start with, they are usually inaudible. They don’t realise that most meeting rooms, particularly in hotels, have air-conditioning/ heating units giving out a constant background drone which makes their tentative remarks – and their remarks are always tentative – hard to hear. They probably haven’t done their homework properly either so it isn’t surprising their remarks are tentative, and they tend to apologise a lot. Even though they have a lot to apologise for it doesn’t add much to the decision-making process when every other sentence is prefaced with ‘I’m sorry, I’m not sure/ I didn’t check/ I couldn’t find…..’This person is closely related to

Dr Under-prepared

Sometimes one has valid reasons for turning up to a committee meeting without having done sufficient preparation. These aren’t of the ‘dog ate my email’ variety so much as ‘my son was in hospital’ or ‘volcanic ash trapped me in Japan and I couldn’t access the papers’.  But some people seem to make a habit of turning up without having read the paperwork. I once (though this wasn’t a committee meeting but a meeting with a civil servant) suggested we took time out so this civil servant could read the material I had prepared. I was told this was appallingly rude of me by a third party present, whereas I thought I was merely being pragmatic. The alternatives appeared to be I read the salient points of the documentation out loud – which would have taken a very long time – or he continued to bluster and try to cover up his inadequacies. Too often it is the last course which Dr Under-prepared has to pursue, to everyone else’s irritation, particularly if they can’t find their way around the paperwork.

Dr Centre of Attention

This person is obviously the direct opposite of Dr Mouse. They are used to being in the limelight and hence think it is a God-given right to hold forth, whether or not they know anything about the subject in hand or whether they have anything useful to add to the debate.  Apologies do not feature in their language because it never crosses their mind the rest of the committee might not want to listen to what they have to say. Sometimes they may have useful remarks to make, sometimes not – they aren’t stupid so much as blind – but by the time they’ve hogged the floor for a while it is unfortunately all too easy to tune them out so that you miss the useful snippets lurking in their grandiose statements.  Rather similar to Dr Centre of Attention is

Dr Bore, who manifests many of the same characteristics but from a position of weakness; they don’t expect to be in the limelight but given half a chance – and at a grant giving committee for instance, they will of necessity be given that chance since they will have been assigned a set of grants to talk to – they will seize their moment. Usually they have voluminous notes which they will read verbatim in a monotone (possibly inaudibly). It may be obvious from the first sentence that this grant hasn’t a hope in hell of being funded, that every referee has said it is hopelessly flawed and the applicant’s letter of reply has admitted the failings, nevertheless this person will read every line of their notes even when time is of the essence and the chair repeatedly tries to intervene to cut the discussion off. This person is impervious to hint.

Dr Not Listening

There are those who seem to turn up to meetings and float through them in some dream world. The chair turns to them and asks them to speak to the next grant, which they were clearly listed as being expected to do, and they wake as if from a daze, drop their papers on the floor and then waste 5 minutes while they endeavour to find the relevant piece of paper. There are other variants of this: the person who requires a carefully expressed argument to be repeated because they weren’t paying attention just before a critical vote is to be taken, or who goes over exactly the same arguments as someone else has already made because they weren’t concentrating at the relevant moment.

Dr Mac-the-Knife

This person has few words, but those they choose to use are wielded like a weapon.  This is the person who says that so-and-so can’t be funded because they haven’t published in the top journals or that their h index is too low. It doesn’t matter how many things are right about the individual or the grant, this person gets their knife out and it is almost impossible to repair the damage. Maybe it is known there is a personal vendetta involved  – if the chair is very well-informed the bad-mouthing can then perhaps be reversed; more often there is no obvious reason for the kiss of death being applied.

The Chair

It is regrettable that just occasionally the chair has not been ideally selected. Perhaps they aren’t on top of their own paperwork, perhaps they like the sound of their own voice too much, or maybe they are indecisive or too timid to draw a contentious discussion to a close; conversely perhaps they cut off any discussion before it becomes meaty enough to develop a sense of contention which can also be frustrating .  Any of these can make the committee malfunction and leave a nasty taste in the mouth.

The Angels

And then there all the super, hard-working men and women of integrity, who have done all the necessary preparation, project their voices appropriately, stay awake and keep their remarks to an appropriate length. Would that all committees were peopled solely by such, but in the meantime I fear each and every one of us will rub shoulders with a handful of people we would rather not.


If you have sat on any committee with me, please do not try and work out who I am describing; or even worry that I am describing you. These are composite images drawn through a distorting lens at the end of a long and tiring week (though not full of tiresome committee members I’m glad to say). The angels tend to be in the substantial majority, the offenders just have been known to get under my skin upon occasion. And since my blog often contains words of wisdom for more junior folk, maybe I can urge them to think what attributes to try and avoid the first time they get called upon to sit on some committee or other. In the meantime, happy offender–spotting!

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14 Responses to The Pleasures of Committee Work

  1. rpg says:

    *hahah* Thanks for this, Athene. Hope you enjoy your weekend, sounds like you need it…

  2. Steve Caplan says:


    I know that I haven’t sat on any committees with you, but how is it that all of the people you describe are on committees with ME?

    • Human nature the same the world over I suppose. Given your comments on my last post about national differences, can you spot any difference in characterisation according to the different countries you’ve lived in?

      • steve caplan says:

        I would say that your descriptions are 100% accurate for what I see here in the US. It’s phenomenal how you have drawn a set of absolutely classic stereotypes! They should go into a novel as fully developed characters.

        My guess is that ceratin nations will have a higher propensity towards committee members who fall under the “Dr Centre of Attention”, whereas in polite places (I include the UK and US), there will be 1/committee.

  3. stephenemoss says:

    Let’s not forget Dr Gourmand. Some years ago I was on a grant panel in Paris, conducted throughout in French, chaired by a very affable retired scientist who clearly felt that science could not be properly discussed without a perpetual supply of strong coffee and assorted patisserie. As the morning wore on and lunchtime approached, there was a distinct acceleration in the consideration of the proposals, all culminating in a flurry of hasty decision making and a speedy relocation to a nearby bistro. The workload could easily have occupied a full day, but there had clearly never been any intention to continue beyond lunch, which was just as well if I remember correctly.

    • cromercrox says:

      A few years ago I wrote columns for Le Monde and went to Paris every now and then for meetings. They were exactly as you describe. Exactly.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Which one are you? 🙂

    In my opinion, there are far too many meetings of the kind that plan future work, or summarize work done, and these meetings proliferate (the word ‘metastasize’ is not too strong a term, I feel) until there is no time for the actual work. My hatred of meetings was piqued by watching a John Cleese training video called ‘Meetings, Bloody Meetings’. If by any remote chance, perhaps in an alternate universe, I am ever called upon to head any kind of managerial structure, my first task would be to review all meetings and cancel any one not deemed so vital that people would die as a result of not attending it.

  5. @stephenemoss – I don’t think I have met Dr Gourmand, not having done those kinds of committees in France. However, I have certainly worked in France on committees where gourmandising features after hours! My most recent experience in Paris consisted of 10-11 hour day of work, followed by a couple of hours of culture in a (very interesting) museum. We didn’t sit down to eat till 10 that night, by which time I was ready to crawl into bed however good the food was. The next night was a bit easier because we were being treated to a meal at a Michelin starred restaurant so we needed to start earlier. Hard times.

    @cromercrox – I’ll leave it to my friends (or perhaps enemies) to classify me. However, one moment of ‘triumph’ stands out in my mind when I got a round of applause and a shout of bravo after I’d finished chairing one potentially very awkward and divisive committee, so I would (wouldn’t we all!) like to think I was on the side of the angels. I was carefully not referring to planning meetings of the sort you deem so pointless, since they have a very different dynamic – and offer even more scope for a few members dominating in the form of Dr Bore.

  6. nico says:

    Henry, you should be in charge of the NHS.
    Now if you excuse me, I need to organize a meeting to see whether a meeting with the art team is necessary. I’ll probably have a follow-up meeting with my colleagues to report on the first and second meetings.

  7. Pat Bowne says:

    Great post ! But you had to mention Gilbert and Sullivan …

    There’s the gentleman so tentative he’s really hard to hear,
    I’ve got him on the list, I’ve got him on the list
    That he hasn’t read the paperwork becomes extremely clear
    He never will be missed, he never will be missed,
    And the one who always knows it all in loud and booming tone,
    He’s lost the group’s agenda but he’s glad to use his own,
    And the person with the notepad and the analytic mind
    He’s read the docs and lists out each misspelling he can find,
    And the one who always seems to have her knickers in a twist,
    They’ll none of ‘em be missed – I’m sure she’ll not be missed.

    There’s the one who brings up issues that aren’t under your control,
    I’ve got her on the list, I’ve got her on the list,
    If she were on the internet you’d say she was a troll,
    And she never will be missed, she never will be missed;
    And the one who’s reading journals till the final vote is near,
    Then makes you recap everything that he was there to hear,
    And the one with a pet topic who will talk of nothing else
    And the one with business envy who keeps asking ‘if it sells,’
    Uses military metaphors and says he’ll ‘re-enlist,’
    He never would be missed, he never would be missed.

    I’ve got ‘em on the list, I’ve got ‘em on the list
    And they’ll none of ‘em be missed, I’m sure they’ll not be missed.

    And no, I don’t work with any of them either.

  8. Pat – that’s a great translation of my post into G+S speak! Thank you so much for concocting your little list. I hadn’t thought of trolls at my committee meetings, but I’ll definitely be looking out for them now.

  9. Frank says:

    Athene – I can confirm that the same characters exist in committees outside science too. I’ve sat on one or two with similar castlists.

    You don’t mention the Apparatchik – someone performing a secretariat role rather than a representative role. They are the voice of policy, of officialdom, who tell you what the rules are regardless of common sense. A strong chairman is needed to counter their influence.

    • Looks to me as if this is a prompt for a subtly different list of unattractive souls for committees of the planning type that @cromercrox so particularly abhors; I believe that’s when Dr Apparatchik is more likely to make an appearance, probably along with Dr Jobsworth and Dr Nimby. But that, I think, is for another day!