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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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!