Do You Recognize this Person?

Since it is the vacation, and few committee meetings are being held, I thought now might be a good moment to revisit the characteristics of Committee Chairs I promised a little while ago . Given the timing, my colleagues are least likely to think I am referring to any one in particular in anything I write, because I won’t have been shut away in a room with them for extended periods any time recently. The classifications have been helped by the range of comments that earlier post got, but no doubt you can come up with even more variations of people you would far rather were never allowed to be in charge of anything that you are involved with. I should add, anyone I describe here is entirely fictional and not based (at least particularly closely) on any person, dead or alive, although my thoughts will undeniably be prompted by an amalgamation of strands of many individuals I have met over an extended career. So, disclaimer out of the way, here I go.

The Benevolent Dictator Chair has many things going for them. They know what they want, and they intend to get it. But they also know that folks must be allowed their say, to get things off their chest so that they feel better whatever final decisions are taken. So, meetings may be run quite effectively because it is so carefully orchestrated to reach the appropriate end point. The chair will have decided the night before over a nice glass of wine what this end point is, as they read through the papers. These people are pretty organised, so they will have read the papers and know how to marshal the arguments to achieve this end point. As long as your view and theirs coincide all is hunky dory. If you wish to argue you may do so, and they will say

how very interesting


you raise some important points,

but you won’t actually make any dent in their original plans. Once you know this is their modus vivendi you may decide it isn’t actually worth saying anything at all, but on the whole I think that’s the wrong strategy. You may make no immediate impression, but they are in fact quite likely to work out if you are smart (by which I probably mean useful to them in the months ahead), and so you can at least affect some future situation, even if not the current one.  However, if you go at them too hard their benevolence may start to crumble, at which point they may start huffing and puffing.

This may start to make them resemble the Passive-Aggressive Chair. This person comes in two variants when in charge of a meeting. There is the one who is all mildness as long as everything is going smoothly; this person may in fact just let things drift and take their course without too much of a steer being given to the discussions, until they are directly challenged. At this point they get irate, red in the face and say things like

would you like to retract that remark?


I really don’t think there is any need to get personal

(although in all likelihood there is, and that is exactly why you are challenging them because drift is not a good way to run a meeting). The other variant operates the other way round. This person is always apparently ready for a fight, even when no one is trying to fight with them, and quick to complain about some other part of the system – the administrators, HR or IT services for instance. This bellicosity continues until they are actually asked to do something such as take the committee’s complaints to these people. Thereupon they subside, mutter something about perhaps it’s a little premature to make an official representation to said people and rapidly move on to the next item on the agenda.

The Invisible Chair also allows the meeting to drift. Indeed, that is all they do. Probably completely out of their depth, they may have found themselves in the hot seat because they were out of town when the committee was convened and so failed to extricate themselves from the responsibility, or because they were regarded as less of an evil than someone who was going to do things actively disastrous, as opposed to passively so (see for instance Chair with Favourites below). They are probably under-prepared, because they haven’t really worked out what it is they are meant to be doing; they are often rather timid and so can be manipulated by more Machiavellian members of the committee; and they tend to speak in an inaudible monotone so even if they are saying something wise they are unlikely to be heard, literally or metaphorically. No fun serving on a committee with such a chair because meetings can turn into dogfights where (s)he who shouts loudest wins the day, regardless of the sanity of anything they say.

The Waffling Chair is about as effective. This person may or may not know what they want and may or may not have sensible ideas about how to achieve it. But they don’t know when to shut up. They can talk for 80% of a committee meeting, sending everyone else to sleep. One consequent danger is that no one pays enough attention to notice when daft decisions are implicitly being made; they’re too busy trying to play Sudoku on their laptops or (surreptitiously or otherwise) read their email. In this regard the paperless office has a lot to answer for: it is far easier to hide your complete lack of attention to what is going on around you when hiding behind your laptop than it used to be when committee papers were, well, paper. Doodling a caricature of the chair was so obvious in days of yore, a caricature perhaps of someone with smoke coming out of their ears.

That person might be the Impatient Chair. Nothing can ever be done fast enough. People really shouldn’t try and speak at their committee meetings, because it causes the gatherings to drag on beyond the 30 minutes they are prepared to allocate to them. Sometimes brief meetings can be wonderful, but not if insane decisions are taken because no one had a chance to air the pros and cons, consider unintended consequences (a rule of a university committee decision is that there are always unintended consequences) or to allow the representative from the group about to be affected, say the students, to open their mouths.

Chair with Favourites (not at all the same thing as a favourite Chair) makes sure that the people who agree with them get their way. They will ensure that these people always get the best of everything, perhaps more resources or a lower teaching load, but also that they get to swing decisions to make sure that they go on getting the best of everything. Unhealthy little cliques can form this way, so that Professor X asks Professors A and B to serve on their committee, makes sure that A and B get prime space or students, and then when Professor A chairs the teaching committee they can hope that their own stints in the practical classes are appropriately minimised. A system that basically stinks but is hard to overcome without a collective will for transparency from the senior management – difficult if X, A or B is the head of department….

Let’s turn to Micromanagement Chair. Oh dear, so boring the meetings they chair. It is hard to work your way down the agenda because everything has to be scrutinised so particularly carefully in case there is an i left undotted or a t uncrossed. Nothing gets delegated, no happy words such as

I’m sure we can rely on Dr N to deal with that so let’s move on to the next item.

No, it will be an endless anxious scrutiny over things that really never needed to be raised in the first place so that the minutiae take over and the important decisions are rarely considered.

Finally, there’s the Efficient Chair. I don’t really need to describe this estimable character because you recognize yourself here. This person does their homework;  knows what they’d like to achieve but is flexible if the arguments are persuasive; can quell that irritating Dr L – who has an appalling nasal whine and a touch of Asperger’s which means they aren’t aware of the effect they have on others by their moans – with a mere raising of the eyebrow. They always know who to go to for the missing bits of information, they factor in tea and comfort breaks and they never, never let a meeting over-run.

Why can’t we have training camps to turn everyone else into one of these miracles?

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10 Responses to Do You Recognize this Person?

  1. I wish!

    I’ve taken to knitting socks in some meetings. This usefully occupies time whilst allowing your presence to still be, more or less, available 🙂

    viv in nz

  2. Tiziana Metitieri says:

    Brilliant! I wonder if there may be a correlation between type of chair and gender…
    I’m willing to donate the money of this summer ice creams to support that training camps!
    Thanks from Italy.

    • Which would you categorize as specifically male versions, and which female? I’m not sure it’s so obvious, but have not seen so many women in action as chairs compared with men in my field.

  3. Wonderful, and essential training material, should anyone ever come up with “Chairing academic committees 101”.

    But you did skip the Obstructive Chair – the one who has the knack of poisoning every good or innovative idea with a “well I don’t think that will work”. Or “that’s not how we do things here”. Or the devastating “Maybe we should do this…” before proceeding to mutilate what was once a promising thought.

    • Andrew, you’re absolutely right how could I forget the Obstructive Chair! They turn up quite often, but sometimes merge with the Benevolent Dictator Chair because their goal is the same: only to allow what they want to happen to get through the committee.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Efficient chairs factor in tea and comfort breaks – loath as I am to blow my own trumpet, I present the following story. I was chairing a meeting recently at the Zoological Society of London ( in which three half-hour platform presentations were to be followed by a panel discussion. After an hour and a half of talks (all brilliant, and in which the speakers kept to time and didn’t need much chairing) I felt a strong need to pee, and reasoned that I could hardly chair a panel in such a state. Therefore I used the chairman’s prerogative of calling for a five-minute break. This was greeted with universal relief (I use the word advisedly). To my surprise, I learned after that
    (1) No chair had ever done this before;
    (2) the general opinion was that I was the best chair they’d ever had, and they’d like to invite me back.

    • @cromercrox I see you’re creating more work for yourself by being the Efficient Chair. But clearly people in my field drink more tea and coffee than you do, since comfort breaks are not uncommon. I always try to work out how to factor them in meetings I chair, and think nothing of it (usually accompanied by further supplies of tea, coffee and, if the organisation is rich or it’s a fancy hotel venue, biscuits to keep the blood sugar and attention levels up).

  5. As promised, a cartoon version of this superb article can be found here:

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