Committees That Work: Common Traps - Creative Solutions
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Minnesota. All rights reserved.
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- About This Guide
- About Committees
- Trap 1: Letting Private Interests Influence Public Decisions
- Trap 2: Lacking Direction and Purpose
- Focus on Purpose and Results
- Activity B: Identifying Committee Results
- Set a Shared Vision and Goals
- Activity C: Creating Shared Vision and Goals
- Inform New Committee Members
- Trap 3: Filling Seats with the Usual Suspects
- Diversify Committee Membership
- Recruit, Retain, and Renew Membership
- Activity D: Recruitment Worksheet
- Trap 4: Going “Off Track”
- Use Appropriate Leadership Style
- Plan for Productive Meetings
- Keep the Group Focused
- Activity E: Feedback on Meetings
- Trap 5: Making Decisions Outside of the Meeting
- Decide How to Decide
- Activity F: Fist to Five
- Activity G: Criterion Grid
- Recognize The Cycle and Tensions of Group Decision Making
- Establish Information and Communication System
- Activity H: Communication System Review
- Trap 6: Getting Stuck in Conflict
- Recognize Conflict Type and Take Action
- Communicate to Diffuse Conflict
- Activity I: A Discussion Tool for Difficult Decisions
- Tackle Problem Meeting Behaviors
- Activity J: Conflict Management Survey
- Trap 7: Boring Business as Usual
- Find Alternatives to Giving Reports
- Activity K: Screening Agenda Items
- Encourage Creativity and New Ideas
- Activity L: Snow Cards Exercise
- Activity M: Station-to-Station Brainstorming
- Make Conference Calls Work
- Case Study: The Budget Cutting Meeting
About This Guide
Effective committees have engaged members, strong leadership and good
process. When these areas are working well, a positive dynamic is created.
When any area is challenged, it affects the other areas and can stall or lead to
ineffectiveness. This guide includes strategies to strengthen these three areas.
Effective Committee Model
Traps are situations from which it is difficult to escape and which people feel
confined or out of control to fix. This guide identifies seven common traps of
committees. These traps will be used to organize the guide and are noted with
Creative solutions are ways that committees can get out of traps. This guide
offers solutions for each trap, indicated by this symbol. Each solution represents
ideas and information drawn from a variety of practical and academically-sound
resources. Readers can explore these topics further. Committees are encouraged
to work for cultural competency in implementing the guide’s concepts as some
elements vary across cultural lines.
The guide’s authors value cultural competency and made an effort to consider
cultural differences. However, they recognize and wish to stress the importance
of learning about the specific cultures of those with whom you are working.
Trap 1 - Letting Private Interests Influence Public Decisions
Committees are comprised of private individuals with a public job to do for
organizations or a community. While it is natural for members to have selfinterests
and relationships that may influence their work on the committee, this
also has to be monitored. Establishing boundaries and guidelines for operating a
committee based on the public rather than private arena will allow the
committee to flourish. Avoiding the perception of favoritism, closed meetings,
and/or bowing to special interests will give the committee credibility and trust
of the public. Two solutions recommended to help avoid these types of
- Stay in the Setting of Public Decision Making and interact based on
the principles of public life rather than private life.
- Establish Working Agreements early on to build group trust and
clarify individual responsibilities.
Stay in the Setting of Public Decision Making
Citizens involved in public work make meaningful contributions to society.
Public has its roots in two Latin words. One is populous, meaning people; the
other is pubes, meaning maturity, because puberty was the moment one entered
the world beyond one’s household. The term public refers to:
- A diverse group of people - the public. It is in the public that you
encounter people different from you. In many cases, people are not
linked by common interests but by a common problem. The public
realm is often characterized by debate, argument, and conflict.
- Public is a quality of space that is open and visible to all - the public
world. This is where your actions are visible for all to see and thus
you are accountable for what you do.
- Public suggests a broad sense of common good - the public interest.
The public interest is created by those with diverse interests who are
engaged in problem-solving with each other.
On the other side of the spectrum, the concept of private refers to the setting of
close personal relations that one may have with family and friends. The ways of
thinking and acting are different than in public. The values of love, intimacy,
friendship, acceptance, and loyalty characterize the private setting. In the private
setting, you are accepted for just being yourself with less emphasis on what you
do. Examples of the private setting can be your home, neighborhood or circle of
While both the private and public setting may be present in many situations, it
is important to consider how decision-making differs between these. Conflictsof-
interest can be avoided by recognizing when the nature of a request is based
on a private mode of operating rather than public.
Differences Between Private and Public Settings
Home, circle of friends
School, workplace, associations, meetings
Adapted with permission from: Boyte, H. and Skelton N. (1995). Reinventing Citizenship: The
practice of public work. (p. 38). Minneapolis, MN: Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public
Affairs, Center for Democracy and Citizenship, in partnership with University of Minnesota
Read the examples of private and public roles in the boxes below. Record your
own roles in both public and private settings.
- List a few examples of private and public settings from your life and work.
- Dinner with extended family on Sundays
- 4-H Leader
- Buying a family car
- Purchaser for county government
- As you reflect on your work, name areas where you see examples of tension
between the public and private settings.
Example: 4-H Leader: I feel tension when extended family members in my 4-H club want me
to accept paperwork after the deadline. In my family I can negotiate late deadlines; in my role
as 4-H leader I must enforce deadlines uniformly for all, including family members.
Example: Personal car and work car: I can buy my own car at my brother-in-law’s dealership;
when I buy cars for the county, I must accept bids and review those to make the purchase.
Strategies for Keeping the ‘Public’ in Public Roles
If a committee member tries to influence public committee actions with private
interests, the group needs to respond accordingly. Helpful points to consider include:
- Recognize when a request is not in the best interest of the public.
Familiarity with the distinction between the public and private
settings will aid members in identifying inappropriate requests or actions
- Bring the issue to the attention of others on the committee.
Transparency is important for building trust.
- The committee should follow appropriate group decision making
procedures. Clear reasoning must be determined when making a
decision that clearly is of private interest. Most importantly, the group
must be transparent and accountable to the public for its decision.
- If the committee has established ground rules for what is appropriate,
they should be reiterated so that all members are reminded of the
need to keep public and private separate.
If the group lacks ground rules, now is the time to create them. The next
section on working agreements details how to create such guidelines.
Establish Working Agreements
Working agreements (a short list of ground rules) describe what the
expectations are for how the group will work together. Creating and enforcing
ground rules early on can create a safe, friendly meeting environment and can
help achieve the purpose of the meeting. Making them explicit helps clarify
individual rights and responsibilities in the group setting. Effective ground rules
help build group trust and manage problems before and as they occur.
The best ground rules come from the members themselves to meet the
particular needs and challenges of the group. Examples help them get started,
and the group adds to or modifies them as they see fit. Once they are
established, participants should agree to abide by them. They become a contract
that commits the group to constructive ways of engaging and should be
revisited regularly and refined when necessary. Groups that consistently observe
ground rules have a more constructive dynamic than do groups with no rules or
with indifference towards rules.
Here are two examples of “working agreements” which have proven helpful for groups:
- Everyone participates; no one dominates.
- There is not one “right” answer.
- Committee decisions are to be made in the meetings.
- Keep an open mind.
- Listen carefully to others.
- Help keep the discussions on track.
- Try hard to understand the views of those with whom you disagree.
- It is okay to have friendly disagreements - everyone has a right to his/her own views.
- To help bring closure to a discussion, use the “I can live with it” rule.
- I will respect others for who they are and respect our differences of
- I will communicate (speaking and listening) to understand.
- I will take ownership of my own views by using “I” statements.
- I will put the purposes of the group ahead of my own needs and behavior.
- I will strive for a climate of healing, peace and good will.
- I will keep decision making processes within the formal meeting setting.
- I will consider the following if I react negatively to a statement made by someone else:
- Respond with a thoughtful question
- Paraphrase back what I heard
- Count to 10
- Try to understand the feelings
- Try not to use negative body language, facial expressions, or sounds
Activity A: Establishing Working Agreements
Follow these steps to establish working agreements or ground rules for your group.
- Individually, think about your group and how it operates. Write down
guidelines you feel are most important for your group:
- Individuals share their ideas to create a master list of potential guidelines.
Choose the best guidelines for your group by following your committee’s
process for group decision making. It is important that all members of the
committee agree to adhere to these guidelines. Write your final group of
- As a committee, decide how the group can assure that the guidelines will be
followed. What should be the consequences for individuals not following
- Consider establishing a schedule to review the working agreements each year
to discuss whether it is functioning well and if revisions are needed as the
group evolves. Record your next scheduled review here:
- Are there any cultual factors that need to be considered, e.g. time, gender
roles, language barriers, meeting location, handicap accessibility?
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