Committees: Why don’t they teach people about messy group dynamics in school?

I’ve been on volunteer committees for over half my life. Seriously. I joined the executive board of the Carmichael Teen Center when I was 14, then the Sacramento Youth Commission. When I moved to Berkeley for school I joined KALX, and quickly got involved with the management. This all prepared me for the murky waters of library committees.

It’s something they don’t teach you in library school, so it’s trial by fire. Some committees are very productive and functional, where communication is open and people collaborate and work together. Others are… just simply dysfunctional. Too much baggage, too much history, hidden agendas, and lots of double speak. Most are somewhere in between: There might be times of miscommunication and misunderstanding, but for the most part people are moving in the same direction. These committees don’t move super fast, but they do evolve.

What about the bad ones? How can you deal? Well… here are some things to try.

  • The Logjam: This is the person who has their hands in everything. No project, no motion, no communication and progress can be made without their input. Problem is… they are often overwhelmed, which makes them slow to respond or absent. Nothing like having a meeting with the Logjam absent. This more or less means, you’ll need to have another meeting to progress. Solution: Push for delegation of tasks, but be sure to frame it in a positive way. “I know you’re swamped with stuff, how about Reginald and I handle this call for papers,” works much better than, “You dropped the ball before, Reginald and I will do it.” Also, set deadlines. That gives them a chance, but when you move forward, it’s OK.
  • Silent But Deadly: This person is sort of like the Logjam, but in some ways much worse. I would say the Logjam’s intentions are usually good, whilst SBD’s are usually not. This is the person who will not participate in meetings, forum discussions, or on listservs when discussions arise. Instead they email or call people offline, expressing grave concerns and misgivings, trying to change group decisions. This is the ultimate in passive aggressive behavior. Solution:Engage them in meetings. Give them the public opportunity to weigh in. Like the Logjam, set deadlines. Also, communicate in good faith, but keep it above board and official. When you hear from others that they are unhappy, you may want to talk to them directly or tell the people who told you of SBD’s displeasure SBD needs to let the group know their displeasure. They probably won’t, and the group will probably just move on.
  • The Includer: This is the person who wants to include everybody. The committee can’t make any decisions without first consulting all relevant groups; members, other organizations, the public. It’s a kind of death by transparency. While I totally think sometimes involving members is a necessary thing, other times it’s an unnecessary step that slows down the process. Solution: Suggest informally running proposals by key people who might be affected in some cases, but always set a deadline. For other cases, remind the Includer that members elected you to decide these things, and they trust you. Be sure to make minutes available to the public, and be proactive in communication. Sometimes The Includer is right, you need to find a balance.
  • It’s Personal : This person takes everything personally. Disagree with them? You hate them. Want to change something they’ve done? You don’t respect them. Working with them can be very messy, and the most common response is to avoid. But what if you can’t? Solution: Be very explicit when discussing things It’s Personal has done or is involved with in as an unpersonal way as possible. Make it clear it’s not about them, it’s about whatever the issue really is. It helps if you’re also complimentary and reassuring at the same time. “The outreach committee has a very strong foundation, thanks to Bertram’s efforts, but I think the committee could improve in engagement through this other program.” Always make it about tasks and groups!
  • Tradition: “We’ve been doing it this way from the beginning.” “Back in 1973, we decided on that because of XYZ.” We all know this person. They have been around and involved forever, and won’t let you forget it. It’s institutional knowledge overkill – more like a weight holding you down. Solution: Listen to them, and use them to figure out the whys of those decisions. Ask for context. That stuff is valuable, and then use that to inform your decision. Make Tradition feel valued and included, but also be firm that just because it’s been that way for while, that it can’t be changed.
  • New Kid Know It All: I’ve been this person. I think we all go through this phase. They’re up on their trends, and know how to fix everything and fix it right now. They want bleeding edge change immediately. They want to smash tradition in the face. They are also abrasive and sometimes alienating. Solution: Share your frustrations about the need for change, but teach them about the importance of tone and presentation. The lesson of getting people to work with you is really hard, usually burned into you over time. Team them up with Tradition for either a partnership that could be really effective, or will blow up in your face.

These are just some of the problem people in committees. Often you’ll find blends to deal with. Identifying the root of bad behavior is the key to rectifying it. It’s also important to be aware if you’re the problem. There’ve been a few times where I thought I was totally in the right, but talking to my colleagues made me see I was really being a pain in the ass. The problem really is when you can’t play nicely any more. You don’t want to burn bridges, but sometimes you need to just take a stand and not let bad behavior win. Effective, open communication is usually the solution. Make stated goals, set deadlines, stick to it. Document the hell out of things and be explicit. I used to think meeting minutes were a pain in the ass, but now I see them as a tool for progress. That’s sort of weird.

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