To be honest, this wasn’t originally going to be the title of my next post, but I couldn’t resist it after seeing on Twitter @MrHistoire in reply to a humorous cartoon posted by @DavidDidau.It explains why I’ve come round to a particular view of how to chair working parties and meetings.
I remember the first school working party I ever joined. The idea was to come up with a new homework policy. The chairman, a man of strong views and convictions, had obviously read the relevant section in the good management guide and asked us one by one to contribute our ideas. As we went round the table, I could see that the chairman was becoming increasingly dissatisfied. The first comment elicited a slight tightening of the lips, followed by a “Hmm.” By the time the third person gave their views, the tightening of the lips was becoming a frown. I made my modest contribution, noticing that as I spoke, the frown was becoming deeper. By now, everyone had realised that no one had said what he wanted to hear. It was becoming a guessing game to say what he wanted. As the last person on the table spoke, (let’s call him Tom), it became clear that he, too, wasn’t saying the right thing. A slight flush was appearing on the chairman’s cheeks. Yet, in the middle of Tom’s spiel, he hit on a certain phrase (the exact wording isn’t really relevant to the point of the story). The chairman’s features relaxed immediately, he tapped the table with his hand and made an expansive gesture. “Now, what Tom just said is key to the whole thing – can we build on this? Let’s go round again!” So off we went on the next round. The problem was, none of us were saying what we really thought. We were simply trying to guess the views of our esteemed chairman.
Now, I am aware that at this point anyone reading this might be thinking “Well, a good chairman should be more poker faced and wait until the end before summarising everyone’s views. Only at that point should he or she give an indication of his/her own views.” This may be true, but it doesn’t alter the fact that this method of chairing a meeting doesn’t often lead to a frank discussion. Everyone is simply trying to guess the right thing to say.
In Kenneth Clarke’s autobiography, “Kind of Blue” he describes the difference between how Margaret Thatcher and John Major chaired cabinet meetings. John Major’s was the more conventional method I have already described. On the other hand, Margaret Thatcher would state her view on an issue at the outset and wait for others to challenge her. According to Kenneth Clarke, this approach led to more open and honest debate, contrary to what one might have expected. Moreover, he confirms that Margaret Thatcher could be and indeed was persuaded out of her initial views on several occasions.
Margaret Thatcher (and indeed Tony Blair) are controversial figures and it leads to some people dismissing everything they said or did simply because of who they are. Some people think that you must be an out and out supporter if you think any of their ideas were good. Actually, I think both personalities did some things I agree with and some things I disagree with. Since I became a head of department(some years ago now), I admit I have adopted the Thatcher style of debate. If there is an issue about which a collective decision has to be made, I tend to say what my views are early on, but I invite and (crucially) encourage others to challenge me. They often do and a lively discussion ensues. Sometimes I am talked out of my initial view. Sometimes I persuade others of my view. If necessary we have a vote on it and dissenting voices are noted in the minutes, so they can always say “I told you so” if it turns out the wrong decision was made.
Now, I acknowledge for this approach to work, the members of the team need to be confident that the chairperson is willing to be challenged. Otherwise it could mean that everyone acquiesces in something they don’t agree with. However, on balance, I prefer the Margaret Thatcher approach to chairing meetings to the more conventional one. I want debate in my meetings, not people simply trying to guess what I think all the time.