2 Laws of Committee Work

Academe runs on committees, writes James Tuten, who shares two adage-worthy behaviors he’s observed about them.

November 9, 2017
 
 
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I often amuse myself by thinking of history classes that would be valuable as learning experiences but that no 18- to 22-year-old student is likely to take. For example, History of Committees. It is undeniable that modern societies run on committees and caffeine. Modern professional working life has dictated that committee meetings, agendas and workload struggles are experiences we share, whether we are mechanical engineers, middle school teachers, majors or medical staff.

Much of our institutions’ decision making goes through committee meetings or the inevitable email chains before and after meetings, but rare is the person who finds committees exciting or sexy, much less rewarding. Where would one start in the deep history of the committee? The Last Supper? A class could meet just on the adage “a camel is a racehorse designed by a committee.” Our chronology of committees could trace the rise and decline of the term through Google Ngram, from the word’s birth in the 15th century to its peak use in 1968 and through its recent “rebranding” in names like “team.” A team must be better, for as we know, there is no “I” in team.

I am also the kind of person who is attracted to a particular category of adages. I get joy from the eponymous laws that either wryly or seriously describe our lived experience. No such law has been more important over the past generation than Moore’s Law, which states that the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit (silicon chip) doubles every two years. That has proven to be astonishingly and wonderfully prophetic since Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, articulated it in 1965. Yet even as our computing power has enabled networked communication and teamwork, it hasn’t made meetings more efficient. If anything, they seem more frequent and as bloated as ever.

A decade earlier in England, C. Northcote Parkinson made the trenchant observation that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Notice how Parkinson cleverly used the rhetorical turn common to a scientific law, but in his deployment it not only captures an observed truth of modern work life, but it also does so wryly. Parkinson, a historian of the British Navy and Malaysia, also coined Parkinson’s Law of Triviality: with it, he argued that a meeting agenda will focus its time and attention on the less or even least important parts of the agenda.

In the 1960s, two business professors invented the Peter Principle, a law that notes that “in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” Once a well-known law governing modern organization life, the Peter Principle has since faded somewhat, but not because it is less inherently true than it once was.

In the spirit of Parkinson and others, I’d like to share two adage-worthy behaviors that I’ve observed in my two decades as a faculty member and administrator.

Tuten’s Law: Competence will be punished. The structure of many organizations is such that many professionals do much of their work autonomously except for committees. For example, at any given time on a university campus, some faculty members are serving on committees, but usually all are not. I learned early on that some faculty members showed up on many committees, which struck me as both unfair and hard to understand. My provost at the time pointed out that you often ride your best horses the hardest. In other words, as a person’s intelligence, ability to complete tasks and soft skills become known, that person gains a reputation for competence. That reputation results in even more committee assignments, usually at the expense of teaching and research time, as well as energy.

Tuten’s Law of Committees: The people with whom it is easiest to work are those who least make the work about themselves. Every committee has its own personality. The structure of a committee, institutional culture, committee size and purpose, and often the chair all shape it. The individuals in a committee contribute, more than any other factor, in making work painfully slow and fraught or collegial and productive. We’ve all served on committees with that one professor who can’t let even the simplest point pass through without commentary on it. At the other extreme are members who are more subtly frustrating because they never exercise their voice at meetings and so, while never overtly slowing things down, also never advance the work. Personality, habits and self-regard (whether healthy, underdeveloped or monstrous) are the largest factors in determining the committee’s health.

Some people are the all-stars of committee work, however, and we need to sing their praises. Those individuals are committed to the purpose of the committee above their own self-regard. In the same way that every baseball player fantasizes about hitting the series-winning home run, a conscientious faculty member dreams of speaking the brilliant solution to a problem and being the hero of a committee. The member focused on the committee’s purpose, and not on their own heroism, will risk being wrong by offering solutions, making compromises and letting go of their own suggestions when hearing a better one. In their minds, the committee isn’t about them -- it’s about the group meeting its charge. Such people come close to achieving the mostly mythical bromide: there is a very little “I” in successful committees.

That is my sole contribution to our understanding of organizational life. Of course, I may be falling victim to another very recent law: the Dunning-Kruger effect. It describes a category of cognitive bias in which someone lacking skill or expertise in an area in fact believes his ability is much higher than it is. If that doesn’t satisfy you when it comes to understanding the workings of committees, then you can fall back on Hanlon's razor, which reminds us, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.”

Bio

James Tuten is a professor of history at Juniata College, where he has, does and will serve on a distinguished list of committees and teams.

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