How not to chair a committee meeting in a university

Inadequate preparation, failure to keep control and poor time-keeping are among Athene Donald’s six deadly sins

March 16, 2016
Committee meeting

Whether as a student or a professor (or indeed at any level in between), I would suspect there isn’t a reader of this blog who hasn’t had to sit through a meeting of some type or other where the chair has intensely irritated them somehow. There are of course a huge variety of ways to fail to chair a committee well. What follows are some descriptions of those failings I react worst to; in other words, the six sins I see as most egregious. (I appreciate I am laying myself open to those who have suffered at my own hands to describe my foibles and worse, but so be it.)

Inadequate preparation

Any committee member can turn up to a meeting not having found the time – minutes or often hours – necessary to read through the paperwork in advance. As a mere member it is easy enough to keep your head down, to rely on prior knowledge or native wit to get you through. Not so the chair. If the chair doesn’t know what’s on the agenda/in the paperwork or is fully aware of what else is going on relevant to the topics under discussion, it is improbable that things will go well. How often have you seen the chair turn to the secretariat for help or simply pass the discussion across, trying to disguise their own ignorance? If it is a clearly agreed tactic, discussed with the committee’s secretary in advance, of course that’s fine. If it arises from a position of weakness, it means that the chair is unlikely to have a firm grasp of the key issues that should be discussed and therefore may be at the mercy of the more Machiavellian committee members to steer debate and decisions in the directions they please.

Lack of control, including of committee members’ behaviour

I’ve written often enough on this blog about bad behaviour: people who are rude, overbearing, talk over others or make overtly inappropriate remarks (sexist or racist for instance). A good chair will stamp on this at the outset, not allowing individuals to grandstand, to hog the limelight or to be derogatory about others. Point-scoring in committees is all too common but should be eliminated: it really isn’t the way to reach good decisions. But even perfectly well-intentioned people may need judicious oversight. Perhaps they are too inclined to rabbit on inconclusively and need a reminder of the time, or maybe they are inaudible to half the room. A chair who hasn’t fallen asleep can make a difference in quite a light touch way and make the session much more pleasant for all. Too often they fail to do so.

Being incapable of personally shutting up

This failing is a real bugbear of mine, because it is very hard to do anything about it. I have seen some extremely senior people fall into this trap. They probably were prone to do it everywhere but (perhaps mercifully) I didn’t have to endure it on multiple committees. Once was quite enough. Sometimes it is absolutely crucial for a chair to set out a scenario very carefully, to explain the pros and cons of contrasting options or to talk the committee through some complicated legal niceties. The chair needs to hold the floor then. But at other times the committee is there for a purpose: to discuss the matters under consideration and that requires them to have sufficient time to speak and to set out their own views. However, it is a brave committee member who challenges the chair to shut up in a situation like this! No doubt some chairs talk incessantly deliberately, but others I suspect are completely oblivious of the fact that their waffle prevents genuine debate from ever getting going. In my experience, chairs who dominate the time in this way tend simply to cause their committee members to opt out and give up. Not the way to do constructive business.

Failure to keep to time or get through the agenda

When I’m going to chair a meeting, particularly a new one or one with a complex agenda, I like to get a briefing from the secretariat along with suggested timings. Or if it’s a grant-giving (or equivalent), to work out how far down the list of proposals I want to get by some obvious break or hour. It isn’t always possible to keep precisely to time, but at least with such a plan I have some idea of how far I’m deviating from it. It has to be said not all chairs appear to follow such simple guidelines. Having observed a fresh chair recently seem completely oblivious of the time brought this home to me. He seemed unfazed as one committee member left (at the time the meeting was scheduled to finish), another challenged him as to how long the meeting was going on for, and yet other members ostentatiously put their iPads away and took their reading glasses off. It was not an instructive scene. Personally, one of my major challenges is with those evening college meetings that are immediately succeeded by dinner. I haven’t yet had to keep the fellows from their food, but it once came to a close-run thing. I don’t believe this was down to bad chairing (well, I wouldn’t, would I!), it was down to a particularly difficult decision we had to make, but I did try to make sure the debate kept moving on. We left the room with five minutes before the gong, literally, rang.

Inability to find a consensus or at least agree on next steps

When first taking on chairing responsibilities one key piece of advice I was given by a more experienced colleague was to make sure to allow enough time for discussion but be conscious of when the moment came to draw the debate to a close because a consensus (or near enough) had been reached. This can be a real challenge sometimes, but the chair who doesn’t manage to do this is going to fail to come out of the meeting with anything very valuable. If general agreement is not forthcoming it is sometimes worth spelling out the sticking points and the consequences of different decisions – or indeed not making one at all. Making concrete what members may be only half aware are the logical outcomes of their positions can be helpful. But some chairs allow discussions to go round, and round and round ad nauseam with no progress forthcoming, simply the same old chestnuts being worked over. Sometimes sleeping on a debate, accepting that folk need to go away and ponder more or do more digging around to get additional facts, is wise. Allowing old sores to be aired indefinitely is just aggravating for all concerned.

Regarding the committee as a personal rubber stamp

The last failing is when the chair doesn’t actually want debate: they’ve decided what they want and they’re determined to drive it through regardless. In their view the committee is simply there as a governance fig leaf, although sometimes they go through the motions of allowing other views to be expressed (though not attended to). If the committee do have other views and are determined to press them, things can be uncomfortable. However, in many cases the committee just throw up their collective hands and let the chair get their way. This is not usually a good way to make decisions, unless the chair is remarkably prescient.

Most people end up chairing committees without any formal instruction other than watching their predecessors. Too often such learning on the job actually only propagates bad practice. New chairs (or even old hands) might wish to take advice from their most trusted colleagues as to whether they can improve and if so how. It is always useful to get an objective outsiders’ view. It may, however, be painful! Nevertheless, for the sake of your co-workers it may be pain worth enduring...

Dame Athene Donald is professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, and master of Churchill College, Cambridge. This post first appeared on her blog.

Please login or register to read this article.

Register to continue

Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most commented