I was interested to discover recently that candidates for the headship of a certain Cambridge college were required to chair a mock Governing Body meeting (this was not part of my own selection process at Churchill I should say). I can see why a college would think this was a good idea. The ability to chair is a crucial one, one that seems never to be taught – except by example, good or bad – but which can make so much difference to a committee’s outcome. Furthermore, I am led to believe that in some colleges there are an awful lot of committees; indeed I heard the number 26 quoted by someone for their own particular college recently (this happened to be an Oxford one), a number which I personally find astonishing. So, ensuring that the person you are about to commit yourself to for a number of years is competent to keep good order, ensure good results and do it all graciously and with a smile may make excellent sense.
I am reminded about this, not because I’m suffering from sleepless nights as I contemplate the array of committees I will soon be chairing in Churchill, but because of a question that was put to me over Twitter: what to do when two members of a committee take up 95% of the airtime? My own response was that it was down to the Chair to shut them up and keep firm control on the discussions to prevent such a monopoly, but I was then told that one of the offenders was actually the Chair. That does cause problems. I have sat on committees like that, or rather on a committee where the Chair alone took up a disproportionate amount of the time so that no one else got much of a look-in.
This behaviour reduced the committee in question to something of a rubber-stamping farce, because what decisions can be taken beyond those the Chair themselves push if the others present can never get a word in edgeways? After a few meetings like that the dynamics are so flawed that, at least in the case I recall, everyone else just gave up. We may have sat through the meetings but we had zero expectation of anything useful being done. Maybe we were all wimps and should have staged a coup, but there were reasons why that would have been difficult. I have written previously about how I handled the Chair of a committee who persistently referred to us as ‘gentlemen’ and how, with a little bit of help from my (male) friends on the committee he was stopped in his tracks. Not a coup, but certainly a triumph in a minor skirmish which made the remaining meetings somewhat more pleasant at least for me and the other women around the table (of whom there were several). However, if the Chair is the prime offender when it comes to monopolising the discussion I’m afraid I have no simple solution to offer and would be pleased to hear suggestions from readers in the comments!
The Twitter question came my way at just about the time that Mary Beard was giving her lecture on the Public Voice of Women at the British Museum in which she discussed how, from the times of the Odyssey on, there has been a tendency to shut the women up, In classical times this was not of course in committee meetings but simply any ‘public space’. She alluded to the ‘Miss Triggs‘ Punch cartoon I often use in my own talks about the challenges faced too boringly often by women at committees. (If you don’t know it, the text reads ‘That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs. Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.). The need for good chairing is all the more important if the committee has members who are prone to talk over others, of either gender, or who just don’t know when to shut up (see what I said about ‘Standing up to the bullies’ previously).
Sorting out the ‘Miss Triggs’ issue is easier for any committee member to do than shutting the Chair up. Anyone can say, if someone else tries to nick the idea that was originally hers, that they feel Miss Triggs had said that already and it would be good to allow her to expound on it. If the Chair hasn’t the nous or grace to do this then it is helpful if one of the saner members of the committee chip in on this front. But it is harder to shut up the drone (wherever they sit round the table) who just meanders on or the overpowering egotist who can’t imagine that anyone else could either a) have anything useful to say or b) not automatically agree with them. That really has to be the Chair’s responsibility which is why it is so hard when the Chair is the prime offender.
By this stage in my life I have chaired a good many committees of many different complexions. One of the reasons I think using a mock committee meeting as part of a selection process is not entirely satisfactory is that often one has prior knowledge of the committee members. You are likely to know who is the bore, who the extrovert, who the smart-ass and who the salt-of-the-earth you definitely want onside. You most certainly are likely to know their attributes (by which I mean their role, discipline, seniority or who they are representing), at least if you’ve done your homework. With any luck you know their name too (or have made sure there are those things I always think of as Toblerones on the table to remind you who is who). So, walking into a room cold with none of these facts at your disposal and then being asked to lead a discussion of the siting of the new bicycle shed or the wisdom of accepting a donation from an alumnus who made their money in armaments may be much trickier than the reality would in fact be.
However, despite the fact I have chaired many different groups, I have never formally had any instruction in what to do. Maybe other institutions run courses on the topic but as far as I’m concerned it’s just one of those many things for which I have been thrown in at the deep end. The first time I chaired a grant-giving committee I took advice from a more senior colleague as to how she ran similar meetings, and very good advice she gave me too: let everyone have their say and then draw the discussion to a conclusion. Never jump in too soon or people will be left dissatisfied.
But letting everyone have their say is exactly where things can go wrong, with meetings dragging on way beyond the stated end time and a sense of frustration and restlessness pervading the room. So, in my experience, I do tend to shut people up when things show signs of getting out of hand or when someone is showing a bulldog-like tenaciousness about some point in which they are in a minority of one. I also, always, have an eye on the clock: keeping your committee past their lunchtime or denying them a ‘comfort break’ at an appropriate moment will not lead to optimum discussions in my view. The troops get restless.
But letting everyone have their say, making sure Miss (or Mr)Triggs is not derailed, talked over or never allowed even to open her (his) mouth must be a key goal for a Chair. If the usual suspects are the only ones who get to speak then the only outcome will be what amounts to the status quo or a sectional interest of dubious worth. If good decisions are to be made the input of all who wish to contribute should be valued and heard even if, for any particular question, not everyone necessarily has the same expertise. A committee in which a small minority is allowed to dominate time and time again is not a committee whose decisions are likely to be wise.