Life & Culture

Committed to trouble-making

Why do committees bring out the worst in people? Angela Epstein has some advice


Watching Theresa May’s troubles with her turbulent cabinet, I feel a frisson of recognition. Several years ago, whilst doing voluntary service on a local committee, I found myself the victim of an attempted coup.

A fellow member — let’s call them X — decided that they wanted me ejected from the group. Why? Because they didn’t, so they told me, approve of some of the (so-called) controversial opinions I held and wrote about as a jobbing journalist. You know, articles like this one.

Thankfully, a mixture of disgust from others at such lamentable machinations, as well as my own vociferous response, quickly squashed the move (take note, Theresa).

What this energy-sapping episode illustrates is that committee life not only has the capacity to bring out the very best in people — all those hours of dedication, the prevailing enthusiasm in the face of thankless drudgery and, above all, a selfless commitment to a charitable cause or organisation — but it can also bring out the very worst.

What is it about sitting around someone’s dining room table with a plate of grapes and a bowl of pretzels — always pretzels — which turns hitherto sane adults into raging despots?

It doesn’t matter if the topic is coloured serviettes or whether copperplate or curly wurly makes for a better table plan font, the Cabinet style configuration seems to bring the deeply-buried control freak roaring to the surface.

I’ve also endured the bored white collar professional, who spends half the meeting glued to their phone, only to look up periodically, and with crushing irritation, demolish someone’s prized idea.

Then there’s the noise. Truckloads of table thumpers deploy that old tactic of talking over each other to make a point that nobody can hear.

I once nearly choked on my pretzels when a discussion about the virtue of Danish pastries for half time sustenance at a local supper quiz descended into an expletive laden episode of the Great British **** Off.

I think the problem is especially acute on Jewish committees. Not only — and it’s a broad generalisation — is high voltage excitability the default position. There’s also that old adage of if you ask five Jews you get 10 opinions. Of course that can result in some incredibly successful creative ideas. But I also know plenty who emerge from committee life battered and bruised by those whose normal persona undergoes grotesque reinvention when presented with an agenda and a bowl of, yes, pretzels. Some people swear that they will never volunteer for committee duty again.

It’s a shame, because the need is great for ancillary support from the voluntary sector.

A JC investigation last year found that communal welfare charities face unprecedented problems at a time of record demand for their services Diminished support from the government, added to the cost of implementing the national living wage means ever greater pressure to raise funds to back vital services.

Meanwhile our youth and sports organisations, which provide such huge benefits for their members, rely heavily on committees to run their activities.

What’s more, such committees bring together the most remarkable skill sets — artists, mathematicians, designers, accountants, lawyers. Busy people who still manage to squeeze hours out of their time-poor week for the benefit of the community. They shouldn’t find themselves swamped by mini disputes and petty power grabs.

These days I only serve on one committee — and its members are magnificent. Driven by the importance of the cause, we remain fair and focused and refuse to let petty grievances fester. We’re a sort of mini kibbutz located round a suburban dining room table. It can be done if you have mutual respect, a shared sense of purpose and a strong and stable leader ready to squash trouble-makers (I’m looking at you,Theresa).

So if you do sit on a committee and find that pettiness steamrollers courtesy and good sense, please do discuss this article under Any Other Business.

X may not have approved of my work. But maybe, just maybe, speaking out about the dark side of committee life may make its practitioners think again. Theresa May, good luck!

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