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Why Can’t We Get Anything Done? How To Run An Effective Meeting

June 16, 2010, 2:11 pm

No one likes going to meetings. But admit it: you dread some meetings more than others, don’t you? And if you hate all meetings, academia might not be the career for you. As chair of a major Zenith university committee some years back, one week I was tearing my hair out because I was scheduled up to the eyeballs with meetings. “How the Hades do administrators ever get any work done if they are in fracking meetings all the time?” I railed at my companion, a former dean, as I pulled on a clean black tee shirt to greet that day’s scheduling marathon in high style.
“That’s how administrators do their work,” she replied patiently, reaching for the Arts section of the New York Times. “They are doing their work in meetings.” I was gobsmacked. Of course that was right. So maybe it wasn’t the meetings themselves that were the problem — it was the question of making — and marking — the progress we made in them.

This post is for everyone, no matter how unimportant you think you are. Whether you are going to be a first time chair in the fall, or chairing a committee with a small mandate, or just a member of a department or a committee, you need to be able to run, and/or contribute effectively to, a good meeting. It is one of the many failures of academic life that this is not a skill that either taught or openly discussed, nor is it one that faculty will usually admit to valuing. But actually, most do because they hate having their time wasted. From time to time, you might hear it said about someone in a tone of admiration, “S/he runs a really good meeting.” It’s a genuine compliment my friend: will it ever be made about you?

Never fear, the Tenured Radical is here! Here are the five things that I always think about when I am planning and participating in a meeting.
1. Every meeting requires a realistic and clear agenda. If you are running the meeting, you need to take account of what time is available, and how much of the hour you should allot to each item. An agenda should not be too full, and conversely, if there is very little to discuss, cancel the meeting: this will make everyone happy. Getting together just because you are scheduled to do so makes people feel like they are spinning their wheels. Driving people through an agenda as if the building was burning can, on the other hand, cause the group not to take ownership of decisions made in haste, or cause them to (perhaps rightly) not make decisions at all. If an item is taking longer than you thought it would, even if you have pruned out ancillary issues, consult with the group as to whether they wish to defer the item to the next meeting, or finish that discussion and defer the other items to the next meeting.
If you are chairing, you should rough out a semester of meetings in advance so that you know how much aggregate meeting time you are willing to allot to each of the items your group is tasked with. You should plan a regular weekly time so that you are not wasting time in each meeting trying to find space in every one’s schedule for the next one. You need to leave some space for unplanned items that have been added to the semester’s work.
It is also important to designate why things are on the agenda: is a particular item there for discussion and advice, or is it what we call an “action item” — an issue on which, ideally, your group will produce a recommendation, request or policy?
Above all, the committee has to be encouraged to work together as a group, and each member of the committee needs to know that hir opinions (unless utterly irrelevant and noxious) are important to the process. Because of this, you need to:
2. Avoid giving speeches or monopolizing the discussion. This is definitely my worst flaw, either as a chair or a participant in meetings. If you are chair, your job is to establish the agenda, keep it moving, and end the meeting with a sense of the actions to be taken as a result of the committee’s deliberations. It is also your job to listen and make sense of what other people have to say, such as asking people to clarify points. pause the discussion periodically to articulate areas of consensus and disagreement. If you are a member of the committee, don’t speak in long paragraphs that are designed to foreclose alternative opinions before they have even been voiced. This can be terribly polarizing. Worse, it encourages a few strong personalities to dominate, and others to melt away.
The point of the meeting is participation. If you are talking, no one else is, and those other people are sitting there thinking: “What is the point of being at this meeting?” Reserve a few minutes for each item to make sure you have solicited the opinion of everyone who wishes to speak: many people, especially new and less experienced colleagues, will be reticent about expressing their opinions in a more experienced group. Make sure you repeat the positions voiced by these people to reassure them that you have heard what they said, and to make sure others have taken account of it too.
Finally, try to have a sense of when a discussion has gone on too long. You know this has happened when the same opinions, or disagreements, are being recycled; if people are starting to talk among themselves and crack jokes; or if the conversation is straying into peripheral issues. Bring the discussion to a close by asking the group to:
3. Make effective decisions. The best decisions are reached by consensus, in my view, but this isn’t always possible. It is much harder to do in a large department, which can split over real differences in intellectual and institutional philosophy without losing their effectiveness in the institution over the short term. This can be a problem, of course, because it leads to faction. Unfortunately, large departments have no disincentive, year by year, to avoid factions, since it allows strong personalities to flex their muscles in ways that are undemocratic but efficient. But in the long term the damage can be great if these factions harden. What you then get are political struggles that overwhelm legitimate intellectual issues, cause a lack of comity and ultimately, hamper the department’s capacity to do business.
Small departments cannot afford the politics of faction because unfriendly relationships or long-term struggles in a small group can be devastating as people become isolated and angry over long-term grievances. This means that, while large groups are far more likely to vote on items and move forward, even items of little importance, small groups are more likely to invest in compromises that can take much longer to reach but that every member is invested in. Over time, however, the down side of small group consensus building can be an unwillingness to take risks, or make timely decisions on small matters even when such decisions are urgent to the department’s future. Disagreement with the consensus can come to feel socially fraught, causing individuals not to disagree even when it would be useful and productive.
If the small group sounds like a conflict-free zone, it isn’t. Small groups can become idiosyncratic and defensive, and can be rife with the passive-aggressive behavior that the failure to have and resolve conflict can breed. But large groups — particularly
departments — should not become too reliant on voting. It creates the misimpression that every decision, no matter how small is a matter of “policy;” and it means that factions become reified, as strong personalities constantly troll for votes and mark others down as loyal or disloyal.
As chair, you need to decide which decision-making style is best suited to the action you are seeking and the group you are in — not simply go with what is traditional within the group because it is comfortable. Neither consensus or voting is necessarily a better method for making group decisions, although I like consensus because it allows a group that is in the minority to concede its point but still be heard on the matter. Ideally, the minority can modify the decision in a way that strengthens the outcome and invites their support of a decision which they initially opposed. Whatever method you choose (and it could be a mix) you need to:
4. Cultivate respect for the decision-making process within the group. Your meetings are not effective unless every member of your group leaves ready to support the decision or recommendation that is made and the process by which it was achieved. In the case of a personnel decision, each person who voted needs to be able to describe accurately, and in detail, to anyone who has the right to inquire, why s/he voted the way she did. In policy and governance matters, however, the best outcome is that every member of the group is ready to support the decision that has been made, regardless of whether s/he supported it in the meeting or not.
This last point is a particular issue in an academic environment where one’s colleagues often assume that lingering disagreement and argument is not just the norm, but is a right and a legitimate expression of one’s individualism. In intellectual matters this may be productive (although it can lead to stubborn eccentricity in a person’s views), but in institutional matters it can be crippling. There is nothing more annoying than to come to a decision as a group, and then have one or more people leave the room and criticize others, or the group itself, to the larger community.
Oh yes: the one thing that is more annoying is to have the person never give up a disagreement, and divert energy from other business by constantly trying to pressure the group to reverse what it has done. Trying to undercut the decision by disseminating information in the larger community, real or false, is really bad, unless there is a matter of great ethical importance at stake. And under no conditions should people be sending each other rabid emails that pursue struggles that began in meetings, copying and blind copying them to others. Which is why you need to….
5. Discourage gossip. Be firm about which decisions require confidentiality, and why. Give clear direction on what that means: are members of the group not allowed to say anything about a decision? Are they allowed to distance themselves from the outcome publicly if they have voiced their disagreement appropriately within the group? Particularly if your committee draws on numerous departments for its membership, people may have different standards for confidentiality and these may need to be discussed.
Along with discouraging gossip, members of your group will inevitably discuss agenda items with each other outside meetings, but the caucusing to straegize a meeting’s outcome is divisive and should be discouraged, as should email exchanges about business from which some members of the group are excluded. It also encourages the bullying of faculty by those at a higher rank, the creation of unhealthy personal obligations, and character assassination of various kinds. What is the point of having a meeting if everyone attends already knowing what s/he will support and unwilling to listen to those who were not part of these extra-curricular discussions? What is the point of having an opinion if you will have to inevitably fear punishment from one faction or another? Particularly in departments, this kind of informal caucusing (inevitably encouraged by strong personalities who want to run things whether they are formally in charge or not) can lead to long-term damage from factionalization, and resentment from those in minority positions.
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