Not Another Committee

While committees can certainly be valuable, virtually everyone wonders at some point how effectively they are managed and how well they use people’s time, writes David Farris.

June 6, 2017
 
iStock/Chris Ryan
 

I have worked in higher education for nearly 13 years and have had the pleasure of serving on and chairing numerous committees. Committees are intriguing demonstrations of group dynamics and organizational behavior, but lately I have adopted a more critical attitude toward the time we spend in them and the irritations that administrators must endure in the spirit of collegiality.

Having recently completed my doctoral research on organizational citizenship behavior in university administrative committees, I have gained insight into what appear to be uniform concerns about the misappropriation of administrators’ time, failure to prepare people to lead committees and poor committee-management techniques.

During my research, I interviewed in depth six administrative professionals who worked in the fields of human resources, information technology, public safety, campus management, student affairs and academic programming. Everyone I spoke with testified to the importance of committees in helping them meet their personal and professional goals. Yet no one could recall a colleague, mentor or supervisor who provided them with guidance on how committees should be conducted or the behaviors that can facilitate successful committees.

Given the importance of collaboration to the governance and productivity of higher education institutions, shouldn’t we devote more attention to the management and performance of committees? Through my research, I’ve found that we should at least begin to explore three key areas: 1) managing committee leadership, 2) determining committee composition and 3) re-evaluating the influence of collegiality.

Committee Leadership

In my conversations with university administrators, each expressed a desire for committee leaders to possess a more traditional and authoritarian style -- one that clarifies the committee’s task and individual member roles, encourages collaboration and participation, holds members accountable to action items, and confronts counterproductive behaviors. The individuals with whom I spoke suggested that reluctance to actively manage committees contributed to the entropic climate endemic to many committees.

To overcome the initial barriers to group performance, committee leaders should establish expectations at the outset to as to how committees will conduct business and how their members will participate. Setting up this dynamic early on has a positive and lasting impact on the successful function of a committee.

For example, one of the biggest complaints that I heard from administrators concerned the lack of information they receive before the initial meeting and between meetings. An uninformed assembly and lack of continuity means that valuable committee time must be taken to refresh the committee’s collective memory of the issues, progress and outstanding action items.

A second important leadership characteristic is the ability to promote the active participation of various members in a way that yields alternative perspectives, improves the distribution of workloads and encourages a positive, inclusive atmosphere. As one person put it, leaders who are “conscious about involving people as much as they can” and who try “to leverage the strengths of the people in the group as much as they can” are instrumental in creating a cohesive committee environment.

Conversely, leaders who allow people to be marginalized often discourage participation and risk alienating various members of the committee. Although it may be uncomfortable for some people, calling on members to contribute to the discussion or holding conversations outside committee meetings to solicit input may be necessary to elicit active engagement.

The third leadership trait desired by the administrators with whom I spoke is the capacity to rebuff counterproductive behaviors and attitudes. Based on my research, grandstanding, bullying, promoting personal agendas and obstructing other people can distract or otherwise discourage committee members from being fully engaged. One administrator lamented, “One of the least effective things for me and what probably drains my interest in a committee project experience is when the leader is not willing to address issues that are impeding progress or to deal with them honestly.”

Some administrators use specific strategies to counter unproductive behaviors, many of which are similar to those actions that encourage teamwork and participation. They include actively managing conflict resolution, facilitating effective communication among members, tactfully opposing disruptive behavior, removing an unproductive/combative committee member from the meeting (exceptionally rare) and using humor to defuse tense situations. Such skills require discretion and diplomacy to pull off. And as they are rarely practiced and usually not innate, institutions should teach, cultivate and promote such skills through professional development plans.

Composition

The administrators I interviewed also suggest that committee participation tends to decrease when there is disparity in member authority (real or perceived). In university committees, position stratification appears to have a negative influence on participation and engagement. One administrator hypothesized, and others agreed, “The degree to which the separation in the organization is present [in a committee] is inversely proportional to good collaborative effort.” In other words, “The greater the disparity between the people in the room, the less collaboration there is.”

My conversations indicate that junior members of the committee, who perceive a committee as highly stratified, are less likely to engage in it unless their motive is instrumental -- that is, a desire to make an positive impression on their colleagues for personal gain.

The effect of position stratification on committee dynamics is greater at institutions where organizational hierarchies are important than at those where hierarchies are less entrenched. In organizations with informal hierarchies, individuals are allowed to operate with more impunity along vertical lines of authority. As one administrator I spoke with stated, in higher education “we are all in a little bit of a caste system” that determines whose opinions are valued and whose input can be discounted based on position or title. The challenge is finding the right mixture of leadership to guide the group toward pragmatic, actionable outcomes and a committee composition that provides for diversity of perspective and constructive dialogue.

Collegiality

In most institutions, collegiality is an implicit expectation, or as one administrator observed, “Being friendly, being engaging, being willing to at least give lip service to collaboration is important in higher education.” But while touted as an organizational strength, the cultural effect of collegiality may be antithetical to the purpose of committees. Some of the interviewees claimed that efforts to maintain a collegial atmosphere discourage debate and encourage too much compromise -- which can produce mediocre results.

A veteran administrator went so far as to suggest that some people adopt an alternative role identity in order to conform to committee expectations and to protect their true opinions and position. Yet another administrator with whom I spoke succinctly summarized the conundrum of collegiality in the context of committees: “So we all get along here … but we don’t get along here.”

I am not suggesting that we should be disagreeable, but honesty and transparency should be accepted alternatives to collegiality -- and equivalent currencies of the realm. Frank conversations can often cut through the cultural climate that persuades us to settle for less, thereby helping us to reach optimal results.

Recommendations

It’s clear that university administrators should be better stewards of time spent in committees. The prototypical committee should follow a strategic path rather than the improvised gatherings in which we typically find ourselves.

The solution starts with critically analyzing our performance and the performance of others in our committee work. My conversations and research support the following recommendations for committee chairs:

  1. Be explicit about why the committee is convened and set specific goals. Be wary of mission creep.
  2. Limit the composition of the committee and, to the extent possible, solicit membership from one stratum within the organization.
  3. Set performance expectations and a culture of accountability at the outset. Monitor committee performance with agendas, meeting minutes and action items.
  4. Mentor junior employees and provide them with guidance on what constitutes appropriate committee conduct.
  5. Exercise or appoint committee chairs who are willing to intervene when necessary and actively manage committee proceedings.
  6. Encourage constructive debate and transparency.
  7. Remain cognizant of the committee members’ time and other responsibilities. Most committees do not need to meet in perpetuity; instead, disband or reconfigure them as necessary.

I will admit that that I sometimes fail to adhere to my own advice due to the same excuses that any higher education professional can recite. But I recognize the importance of our obligation to improve the efficiency and productivity of the committees and organizational processes that constitute a majority of our days, so I’ll keep trying. And while part of social science, as one of my colleagues stated succinctly, is “proving the obvious” -- and perhaps this information is just that to some people -- most of those with whom I spoke about this topic remarked that they rarely, if ever, critically examine the plight of their committee lives.

Bio

David Farris is executive director of safety and emergency management at George Mason University.

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