How to build committees people actually want to join

Committees are a necessary part of campus life—but they don't have to be unpleasant.

David Farris, executive director of safety and emergency management at George Mason University, recently completed doctoral research on organizational citizenship behavior in administrative committees. His research included in-depth interviews with six administrators from a range of offices across campus. While all interviewees acknowledged committees are important, none of them remembered ever receiving training on how best to participate in them.

Based on his research, Farris shares three recommendations for making committees more productive:

Set clear expectations—and hold people to them

One of the most common complaints about committees was poor communication and structure. Committee participants told Farris they want leaders who set clear expectations from the beginning about the goal of the committee and what will be involved in participating.

Then, the best committee leaders hold participants accountable to those expectations. The leader should also make it easy for everyone to participate, for example, by asking for individual committee members for their opinions during a conversation.

Recruit the right mix of people

A committee needs representatives from senior leadership to help the group move toward practical solutions, but it also needs members who will bring different perspectives, Farris writes. Interviewees who hold more junior positions told Farris that they sometimes feel intimidated in committees where other members hold significantly higher positions.

More women translates to smarter groups, study finds

Farris encourages those who lead committees to consider the mix of members and whether the internal hierarchies may discourage some members from participating fully. He also suggests mentoring more junior committee members to help them learn the best ways to contribute.

Encourage honesty

You might think that committee members want you to cultivate a friendly atmosphere, but interviewees told Farris that they actually thought their committees were too nice and were too quick to agree on less-than-stellar solutions. They wanted their committees to include more debate.

To balance the need to be "collegial" with the need for debate, Farris recommends simply asking all committee members to be honest. He writes that this can help encourage productive disagreement without sacrificing politeness (Farris, Inside Higher Ed, 6/6).

Think you're emotionally intelligent because you're nice? Think again.

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