I’ve always found group dynamics fascinating – or to put it another way – how large groups of people make bad choices. One thing that I have learned over the years is that while you would assume that you would gain the collective knowledge of a group – in fact – that rarely happens. While working on a arts council panel – you know – those awful people who decide whether or not your grant application is worthy enough to fund – I finally got it – how collective decisions are made. It is simply a matter of who in the room has the strongest personality – or is the most obnoxious.
Here’s what happened at the arts council panel meeting. Discussions on the grant applicants were made in a rotating fashion – allowing each member of the panel to start off the debate of an applicant’s merits. If the first member of the panel liked the grant applicant – they would say so and why – then the discussion would move clockwise around the room – allowing each panel member to either agree or disagree with the first opinion. Nine times out of ten, the members would agree with the original opinion – or at least they would until the discussion got around to the strongest personality in the room. If the strongest personality agreed with the original opinion – no further discussion was needed (though the discussion would continue until every member had their say) – the applicant would get the grant. If the strongest personality disagreed with the original opinion – then the debates would begin. Now here’s where it gets interesting. If the strongest personality in the room was the ONLY strong personality in the room – the rest of the room would usually sway to the strong personality opinion. If however there was another strong personality in the room – then the grant application had a 50/50 chance. The two strong personalities would debate it out and the rest of the panel would go with whomever they felt they couldn’t oppose. Notice that I didn’t say – they went with the person they agreed with.
On one arts council panel there was a panel member who was extremely obnoxious and abusive when he didn’t get his way. If someone disagreed with his opinion – he didn’t debate the merits of the applicant – no – he launched into a character attack of the panel member who opposed him. To this day I am still surprised that the arts council officer who was conducting the meeting didn’t say a word – not one word – to stop this idiot. I was also saddened by the resignation of one of the panel members who preferred to quit rather than take any more verbal abuse. I of course didn’t back down from this jerk – which led to two years of heated arguments. Trust me – we weren’t debating – we were arguing. The way I figured it was that if the arts council officer didn’t have enough backbone to fight this idiot off – then I was more than willing to block his abuse while the other members made their decisions.
This leads me to another bit of confusion. The arts council had no problem with abusive panel members – yet when it came to things that I felt were important to the granting process – like the fact that an applicant hadn’t paid any of his dancers from his previously funded project – was brushed under the rug. I shouldn’t say brushed under the rug because that would indicate that the issue had been raised. Nope – never brought up. During my tenure at one council – dancers would contact me about the fact that they hadn’t been paid for their work. I always pointed out that protocol dictated that they should address their complaints directly to the arts council – which they always did – and they always sent me a copy of their complaint. Imagine my surprise when faced with another funding request from this applicant. Imagine my surprise when the arts council officer says nothing about the current complaints on record about this applicant. Imagine my surprise when I’m told that the current complaints have no bearing on this applicant’s newest funding request. Those complaints are part of the applicant’s past. Wow – it just boggles the mind.
I can honestly say that I don’t trust the decisions of any large group of people – and I’m pretty happy with that decision. I think what I’m trying to say is this – if you are swimming against the tide – not going with general consensus – then you’ve made the right decision for you. Don’t assume that the large group is right – don’t assume that they’ve used collective wisdom. If large group decisions don’t match your own moral compass – ignore them and go your own way.