Who Has Authority Here?

Jackie Weaver may have become an internet sensation due to her calm handling of a bunch of unruly local councillors, but the behaviour manifest in the viral video is one that many a chair of an academic committee will recognize. Online calls do offer the opportunity to mute tiresome and aggressive members (not a tactic I’ve been reduced to using, at least yet), or despatching them to the virtual waiting room (as she seems to have done), but in person calmness in the face of a vitriolic storm is definitely required.

Over the years I have had the misfortune to watch many committees turn into extremely uncomfortable experiences for all but the minority engaged in bullying, harrumphing, table-thumping, waffling and dog-in-the-manger behaviour who were presumably too worked up to notice their impact on others (or simply didn’t care). Chairs themselves may not be immune to bad behaviour, as I described several years ago. Having just reread that post I stick by what I said about how not to chair a meeting.

As a committee member, you may well go into a meeting knowing you are likely to disagree with others, possibly even the majority. This is a situation I have always found challenging because knowing in advance that things are likely to go astray, does not mean that you’ve worked out how to be effective in the face of that opposition. I well remember one situation like this, where I suspected myself and Professor X would be on opposite sides. And so we were and it turned into an embarrassing spat. It was described afterwards to me by an observer as of the variety of ‘he did’…’no he didn’t’….not a very constructive exchange. Simply contradicting someone is going to be insufficient to convince others of a different mindset without more nuanced arguments and a body of evidence. On this occasion, I don’t think either of us lost our cool, but it will nevertheless have been an unedifying spectacle for the others in the room, who were less immediately involved and probably not caring very much about the issue anyhow.

However if, as a chair you are faced with the red-faced blusterer trying to dominate, or at least throw you off track, what tactics – beyond the Zoom mute – are available to you? Keeping calm is definitely one of them, as the video of Jackie Weaver demonstrated nicely, but it’s not always easy. Personalities matter, and if you know Professor Bloggs is liable to make a fuss in a pedantic way, or lose their temper, you may be trigger-ready to explode yourself as soon as they open their mouth. I’m afraid I know I may internally be guilty of this occasionally, but hope I’ve learnt by now not to exhibit my reaction quite so transparently as in the past. Over the years I have tried a variety of tactics. Sometimes they even work.

I have upon occasion albeit rarely, told someone politely that the room has heard their views – as they set off on the nth iteration of the same argument – and we need to hear other people’s thoughts. This is a pretty damning thing to do, and it does cause deflation on the few occasions I’ve gone this route, but it remains polite but firm. It may be helpful, if you are going to go on working with this person (as in a department where your paths will endlessly cross each other) to go up to them after the meeting with a quasi-apology

‘I’m sorry I felt I had to do that, but we did need to get a wider set of opinions aired’.

So far, that hasn’t provoked a complete breakdown in relationships!

It is worth thinking about what is the non-Parliamentary equivalent of ‘order, order’, the words both Betty Boothroyd and her successor John Bercow used to such good effect as Speaker of the House of Commons. Advance thinking may mean your own choice phrase will come easily to mind as required. When Professor X starts hurling insults at Dr Y, intervention is definitely needed. A good chair should be able, without really raising their voice, to point out the inappropriateness of the behaviour and – if it is basically a wholesome committee not simply stuffed with other bullies – the feel of the room should be able to bring the whole discussion back from the brink. Nevertheless, even when this is done, the net effect can be miserably bruising and unhelpful for the whole dynamic. Letting the insults continue is worse.

I still clearly remember being on the receiving end of Professor X when I was a mere Dr Y, and no one intervened. It was as if no one else noticed I had just been accused of not knowing what I was talking about by someone who certainly knew less. It took me a long time to get over this, made worse by subsequent matters. Talking to my appraiser about the situation I was told that Professor X was still waiting for me to apologise. They had a long (i.e. infinite) time to wait, but why the boot was put on that foot I never understood. Maybe my sin was being the lesser mortal.

That is of course how bullies get away with things. They make others fear and side with them and it is imperative a chair does not let matters get so out of control. In this case, Professor X – who I subsequently went on to have an entirely constructive working relationship with in later years – was not a bully. They were simply someone who lost their temper (when losing an argument) and hurled an insult at someone, me, who was standing in their way. But I hold the chair responsible for not intervening and diffusing the situation at the time.

‘I think that is uncalled for’

or

‘you’re entitled to your opinion, but not everyone necessarily shares it’,

perhaps, would have prevented the issue festering in me as badly as it did.

Table-thumping, because it is such an overt and explicit action, is easier to deal with.

‘We won’t have any of that in this room please’.

Tears are best just ignored. Whereas table-thumping is often a deliberate tactic in an attempt to dominate a situation, tears are usually unsought and embarrassing to the person concerned.  That’s not to say tears can’t be used manipulatively. Of course they can, but in my experience I’ve only ever seen that tactic used in 1:1 situations, and very unattractive it is too. I don’t respond well to it myself, although there may be complex gender dynamics at play which means it works for some people in some situations.

A chair has to retain control. If tempers get loose, if language gets nasty, the only thing to do is to stop it before it gets out of control. As far as I followed the Jackie Weaver video, the problem was that it was largely the chair misbehaving and who then got thrown out of the room (virtually). Dealing with a miscreant chair, who abuses their position and starts shouting, is of course a very different and more difficult challenge. It only works if there is a well-established cohesive group who collectively will take the chair on to wrest control. A tricky situation for which a virtual waiting room may be far more effective than anything that can be done in person.

 

This entry was posted in Science Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *