Thursday, October 08, 2009


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.

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?

Maybe she was trying to convey that she did not agree with what she was about to say, but as a representative of that group, was obliged to say it, because it was the decision of the group. And so the subtext was 'don't get mad at me for what I am about to say, because I do not really support it and won't support it at this meeting, but I have to say it.'

So she might have felt the criticism you expressed was aimed at her when she thought she had made it clear, she did not agree with what she was reporting. So if she felt attacked by you (different than what you felt you did or what you ACTUALLY did), she probably did get upset that you were not respecting that she was ONLY the messenger.

She probably thought you were expecting her to defend it (and from what you wrote, that's how I took it too!) and was trying to get across to you that she personally did NOT want to defend it.

I think what happened is you pissed off a potential ally at that meeting, without realizing it.

So I do wonder -- perhaps you thought your attitude was fine, but maybe you missed all kinds of subtle cues from her. Should she have been less subtle? Maybe, but you do not necessarily know how the other group works and her role in it. She may have felt obliged to report and then not criticize that group's views in another meeting --
perhaps she's untenured and felt at the meeting you both were at, she could not say what she really felt about the issue because of how that would put her in jeopardy with the original committee that she was representing.

Sorry, I normally agree with you, but think you missed the boat big time this time, Dean Dad. Her "respect me" was, I think, actually a sign that she DID NOT like what she had to report and you took it for hijacking the meeting. You messed up, I think, not her.
My first guess about what happened was the same as the first commenter's (before reading the comment). When people say "do not argue with me, I am just a messenger", my hunch is that more often than not they mean that they do not actually agree with the message and are irked that the person they are talking to does not realize it.
I agree with the interpretation of the first two posters, although I also think the word choice "respected" was a little weird ... you should have asked what it meant. These days when people say things that make no sense, typically using cliched phrases they picked up somewhere, I just say, "I'm sorry, I have no idea what that means," and wait for them to clarify.
It sounds to me like the structure of the meeting was somewhat fundamentally at fault.

If a committee has been given a decision-making role and is presenting the decision as final, then really it's a presentation of a final result and not a discussion of the decision, but more about the implementation or clarificiation.

If the issue is not at the final decision phase then there shouldn't have been a motion passed and there should have been a feedback loop for input to get back to the decision-making body.

You put people in a bad position when you put them in one group that thinks it has the decision making authority, and then bring them into another group that doesn't think the first group should have that decision making authority.

So she may have been signalling that her loyalties actually lie with the second group, or that she was uncomfortable with the decision, or that she didn't want to be responsible for trying to change what the first group saw as a fait accompli. The problem really is though that she was caught in the lack of clarity about the stage of decision making.

If her role was to bring feedback back to the original group, that should have been made clear before the motion was passed. If it was to present the decision that was already made, she shouldn't have been put in the position of having to take further feedback on the decision itself. I'd've been defensive too.
I think she was just being evasive about all that you brought up and just wanted to avoid all this.

english language schools
I agree with the last commenter, but only a little. I think if you have a delegate/representative style meeting, then you should have each delegate explain their group's position and keep track of them. Once all are on the table, you move into the next phase and discussion and bargaining can ensue.

I have been the doc student representative on committees during my doc program, and my job was to represent the concerns of the students. I would get their perspective and present it at the meeting. If it differed from my own, I presented both. I then became part of the group and joined the discussion. When it was over, I reported back on the decision to the group.

I did find though that faculty would frequently argue with me about what the students said--not to clarify, but to criticize. That wasn't helpful and often put me in the place of arguing with them. I would rather that we had sorted through everyone's opinions and then discussed overall strengths and weaknesses. It would have made me feel less attacked.

That said, I am an argumentative jew who likes to get into it, so I wasn't as tender as the person in DD's discussion. But I have seen it play out very much as he describes, and a simple change in structure would have made a BIG difference.
I agree with what everyone said here -- she didn't view herself as having an advocacy role, so she didn't want to be argued with.

This isn't to say that you shouldn't have said that you were having problems with the result. "I'm not finding these positions terribly persuasive for a lot of reasons; is there a time I can discuss it with the group, or can you bring back some information?" respects her role as a messenger without saddling her with responsibility (to advocate, for example, or to negotiate) which she feels she cannot execute.
I'm pretty sure it's like in "300." You know, it's uncivilized to harm a messenger--a sacred role throughout the Old World. And in this case, the messenger felt like you just kicked her into the infinitely deep pit you happen to have sitting in the middle of the courtyard. "THIS! IS! SHARED GOVERNANCE!"

My love of silly action flicks aside, I think there is a real difference between being tasked with representing someone else's view, and being the messenger of that view. There is a time honored tradition that the messenger ("Don't shoot the messenger!") is in no way representative of the information, s/he is basically the envelope in which the letter is placed. And blaming the envelope for the letter, or the postman for bringing it, is rather immature. Yes, being The Messenger can be an inappropriate shield behind which people hide. But it is a culturally, (dare I say) respected construct that is well acknowledged.

On the other hand, there is being a true representative, as in, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union...." In this case, the person speaking is speaking as one of the members of the group putting forth the opinion.
Hard to judge without being there to read any non-verbal cues. All I have to go on is Umbrage, and that could be either a response or a tactic.

My first instinct was to assume that this person was stuck with being a mere messenger, having voted against the motion in said committee. But I have learned that operating on the basis of assumptions is bad, so I would have asked up front (maybe interjecting with a point of information when that result was introduced) what the vote had been in the committee.

BTW, one (likely) answer is that they never voted on it, just "came to agreement" on the wording you saw.

In the unlikely case that the vote was not unanimous, you could then ask "ah, so you opposed it?" In the likely case that it was unanimous, you would then know you are dealing with a tactic. She could be saying she wasn't authorized to negotiate for the committee as a whole, or she could be saying it was all her idea and none of it is negotiable.

My response to her statement would be to ask if the committee had discussed the issues raised by "your reasons". Maybe yes, maybe no. Maybe the reaction was because they had spent months reaching a compromise and have a lot invested in it.
I think her response had less to do with her role as a trustee/delegate and more to do with her feeling slighted or cornered. "That ought to be respected" probably meant "I ought to be respected, so step off." I have no idea why she may have felt this way: she may have disagreed with her group's message, or perhaps DD was more dismissive than he realized, or maybe the contentious nature of the issue just had her on edge. Whatever the reason, I agree with the earlier posters, that asking for clarification would probably be the best course of action.

On a side note, I love the image of "smashing people into each other" like atoms or watermelons.
I usually agree with you too, DD. But when it comes to setting policy, one must be practical. At some point, we have to say "XYZ is the policy"; we can't give *everyone* an opportunity to express an opinion, because then a policy would never go into effect. It would remain in a state of perpetual deliberation.

It sounds like the such-and-such committee issued a position statement that they voted on. Was it clear to everyone at this meeting that the such-and-such committee did NOT have the authority to make decisions/set policy about this particular matter? Or am I missing something?

Also, I agree with everything JennG said.
Context is everything. I can see that I should have provided a thicker description of context.

The committee she 'represented' hadn't been charged with doing anything with this issue. It simply arrogated that mission to itself.

Even if it had been charged, it wouldn't have had final say. Subcommittees report out to larger groups, which can accept or deny or amend their recommendations.

"Don't shoot the messenger" may have been what she meant to say. But the function of "respect" as a conversation-stopper was what I really objected to.
My take, fwiw, is that she meant, "I want to be granted total neutral status on this. And I want everyone to make clear in their remarks that I am in no way responsible for my own words." I think she very likely was unfair to you in using the word respect. If she needed to put so much distance between her own words and herself, it was up to her to do that. It was not up to you to intuit it. I think what troubles you is her all-but explicit accusation that you disrespected her. It's not at all clear to me that you did. Quite possibly a cheap shot on her part?
But the real work of decisionmaking isn't just smashing people into each other and seeing who wins.

AHAHAHAHAHAH!!!!!! That's fucking brilliant, dude!
What I think is this (following Lesboprof's comment) - I think that the "respect that" comment may have been avoided (and I do agree wholeheartedly that "respect" can be used as a conversation-stopper in ways that are incredibly lame) if your first move would have been not to challenge x in their motion, but rather first to question x and to ask how the group came to the idea/language about x. After that, you could then have posed the question to the larger group in attendance: "what do you all think about this portion of the motion?" After others had weighed in, and after you had the reasoning of this reported to you, you could then have said, "well, I think x might be problematic for y reasons. Discuss." This is a technique I use all the time in both the classroom and in committee situations. I don't think, necessarily, that the person reporting what the committee decided, necessarily should be held solely responsible for what that committee decided, have to be responsible for what she reported. Ultimately, those were not her "own words," but rather the words of the committee. And since, as you say, this was a relatively contentious issue, it doesn't make sense to expect that committee member to take responsibility for something that does not reflect her personal view. A couple of questions to set the tone of conversation - as opposed to defense - might have allowed for her to respond in a way that didn't play the respect card, and in a way that provided relevant information.

Note: whether this representative is tenured or untenured, faculty can perceive the rejoinders of deans (or other administrators) as charged with a certain kind of power. This can put some faculty on the defensive, even if the dean (or other administrator in question) doesn't intend to do anything other than have a conversation. (And this is a way that being an administrator, I think, is similar to being a faculty member who is the authority in a classroom situation. I can intend a rejoinder to a student in discussion in good faith, but because I am in a position of power in that particular context, it can carry a charge that I don't intend.) This actually reminds me of your recent post about Mark Yudof. I think that you may have been in a situation where you were seeing this representative as a "colleague" while she was seeing you as "The Dean."
Also, I'm unclear about this: if it was a "subcommittee," which I'm taking to mean a smaller committee made up of members of the whole, why wasn't the whole committee in attendance and able to speak to your objections? Why was it the job of this person to report back on what the committee had done? It sounds to me from your explanation like this was a "committee" that took up the task of addressing an issue that was related to its charge, but that this "committee" was not made up of members of the group with which you met?
Sounds like a useless clusterfuck to me.

P.S. Am I the only one noting that DD seems to be edging towards a "I'm the only sane person working with a bunch of crazy people" attitude, despite the fact that he seems to think he knows better than they do how to run things?

(Goodbye shared governance with that pesky tenure he abhors!)
I don't think that's fair -- it's pretty clear that there actually are a lot of ongoing problems in academia, and the fault lines are highlighted with the absurd budget cuts we've been facing.
Well, Eli would have said, thank you for conveying your committee's point of view. Since it is our job here to decide the matter, you are, of course, welcome to participate in the discussion and decision, but I must ask if you are in a position to do so or are bound to the position you presented.
Gee, guys, you all dance around when there was a perfectly good jugular to go after.

What about "I am sorry, I didn't realize you thought I was talking to you. I was talking to everyone else, attacking the dumb idea of X that your group has presented."
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