• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Speaking on Behalf of...

A little while back I was involved in a meeting at which a relatively contentious issue was debated. One person prefaced her statement with something along the lines of “the such-and-such committee has discussed this, and passed a motion saying x. I'm just here to convey that.” I took issue with x, and gave my reasons. She took umbrage at my answer, and responded that “well, I'm just conveying the message, and I think that ought to be respected.”

I don't know what “respect” means in that sentence.

October 7, 2009
 

A little while back I was involved in a meeting at which a relatively contentious issue was debated. One person prefaced her statement with something along the lines of “the such-and-such committee has discussed this, and passed a motion saying x. I'm just here to convey that.” I took issue with x, and gave my reasons. She took umbrage at my answer, and responded that “well, I'm just conveying the message, and I think that ought to be respected.”

I don't know what “respect” means in that sentence.

It could mean “obeyed,” but that conveys a serious lack of respect for the larger group. It could mean “held immune from criticism,” but that actually means either “obeyed” or “ignored.” I guess it could mean “considered,” but how you consider something without evaluating it is honestly beyond me.

(If I were an abrasive jerk, I suppose it could refer to demeanor. I'll just ask the reader to trust that my demeanor was civil.)

Moments like these are why I get impatient with the advocate/constituent model of meetings or decisionmaking. (For those keeping score at home, I'm siding with 'trustee' representation over 'delegate' representation.) Someone who feels bound to represent the Final Word of a given group has no real ability to compromise or to engage others in meaningful discussion about it; the Word is the Word, end of story.

But the real work of decisionmaking isn't just smashing people into each other and seeing who wins. It's about finding solutions that allow for the best considerations behind the various positions to find expression, even if not in the form originally imagined. It's about discerning the difference between 'spirit' and 'letter,' and being willing to sacrifice the latter for the former. But you can only do that if you're able to move beyond “I've said what I've said and that's what I've said.” You can only do that if you own your words enough to change them.

When confronted with “I've said what the group had to say, and that's that,” I feel like the meeting has been hijacked. Now it's not about whether x or y or some variation is the best idea; it's about the relative standing of the group that issued the dictat. Instead of solving problems, we're dealing with internal politics and wounded egos. At best, it's distracting. At worst, it leads to decisions made for all the wrong reasons.

I've seen a variation on this theme in customer service situations way too many times. A policy is enacted for a particular reason. The front-line people don't know the reason; they're just directed to enforce the policy. So a policy gets forced onto a situation where it makes no sense. The front-line people don't 'own' the policy in any meaningful way, so they don't feel entitled to make judgment calls, no matter how obvious they might seem.

Wise and worldly readers -- have you found a graceful way around this?

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