The Chatham House Rule Should be the Exception

Can We Make the Chatham House Rule the Exception?

gargoyleBalliol
May I quote you?

It is common to debate the definition and correct implementation of the Chatham House Rule. My issue is with its over-use. It should be used in exceptional cases, rather than being routinized as a norm for managing communication about meetings.

To be clear, the Chatham House Rule (singular) is: “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”*

One of the central rationales of this rule was to enable more transparency by freeing governmental and other officials to speak without attribution.** Clearly, there are cases in which individuals cannot speak publicly about an issue given their position. Think about the many cases in which news sources do not wish to be identified by journalists. Similar situations arise in meetings, and it is good that The Chatham House Rule exists to use in just such occasions to promote greater transparency.

However, it is arguable that The Chatham House Rule is used in ways that do not promote transparency. For example, it is often misunderstood and used to prevent members of a meeting from conveying information provided at the meeting. Clearly, the original rule left participants ‘free to use the information’, just without identifying the source. This expansion of the Rule runs counter to the aim of the rule’s establishment.

In addition, all too often the Rule is invoked not because the content of a meeting is particularly sensitive, but because it creates a sense of tradition, and an aura of importance. It conveys the message that something important will be discussed at this meeting. However, the function of this is more in marketing a meeting rather than creating a safe setting for revealing secret, confidential, or new information.

A related rationale is that it is just ‘the way we do things’ – the tradition. In this case, there is likely to be no need for less transparency, but a case of blindly following tradition, resulting in information being inadvertently suppressed.

In many ways, the times are making The Chatham House Rule more problematic.

First, history is pushing us toward more transparency, not less. The spirit of the Rule should lead us to apply it only when necessary to open communication, such as around a sensitive issue, not to routinely regulate discussion of what was said in a meeting.

Secondly, the authenticity of information that comes out of a meeting is often enhanced by knowing more information about its source. If a new idea or piece of information is attributed to an individual, that individual can become a first source for authenticating what was said, and for follow up questions.

Thirdly, technical advances are making it less and less realistic to keep the source of information confidential. Leaks, recordings, live blogging and more are making transparency the norm of nearly every meeting. That is, it is better to assume that any meeting is public than to assume any meeting is confidential.

Over a decade ago, I once organized and chaired a meeting that included the UK’s Information Commissioner (the privacy commissioner, if you will), and it was conducted under The Chatham House Rule. At the break, I checked with my IT group about how the recording was going, as we were recording the meeting for preparing a discussion paper to follow. Lo and behold, the meeting was being Webcast! This made for a good laugh by the Commissioner and all when we reconvened, but it also reminded me that everyone should assume the default of a meeting in the digital world is that all is public rather than private.

Finally, there are better ways to handle information in today’s technical and political contexts. Personally, I usually record meetings that are about academic or applied matters, as opposed to meetings about personnel issues, for example. So if we convene a group to discuss a substantive issue, such as a digital policy issue like net neutrality, we let all participants know that presentations and discussions will be recorded. We do not promise that anything will be confidential, as it is not completely under our control, but we promise that our recording will be used primarily for writing up notes of the meeting, and that if anyone is quoted, they will be asked to approve the quote before it is distributed publicly.

Of course, when individuals request that something remains confidential, or confined to those present, then we do everything we can to ensure that confidentiality. (As with The Chatham House Rule, much relies on trust among the participants in a meeting.) But this restriction is the exception, rather than the rule. This process tends to ensure more accurate reports of meetings, enable us to quote individuals, who should get credit or attribution, and support transparency.

The Chatham House Rule was established in 1927 with Chatham House being the UK’s Royal Institute of International Affairs. The worries at that time were more often about encouraging government officials to participate in a discussion about sensitive international concerns by assuring anonymity. Today there are still likely to be occasions when this rule could be useful in bringing people around the table, but that is likely to be exception and not the rule in the era of the Internet, distributed electronic conferencing, and live Tweeting.

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Chatham House, London

Notes

* https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

** As noted by Chatham House: “The Chatham House Rule originated at Chatham House with the aim of providing anonymity to speakers and to encourage openness and the sharing of information. It is now used throughout the world as an aid to free discussion.” https://www.chathamhouse.org/about/chatham-house-rule

 

The Interpersonal Politics of Silence

Sitting in a large number of meetings – as academics do – I have been intrigued by the frequency of individuals remaining silent, and not expressing their views on issues, even to the point of listening to uncomfortable silences. I’ve been sensitive to this, since from my earliest memories of being a student sitting in classes, I was one of those who could not stay silent, trying to respond to questions whether or not I had a knowledgeable response. Perhaps everyone has a psychological disposition to be more comfortable remaining silent or in expressing themselves, and I’m sure this varies cross-culturally and across meetings. There are meetings when I am the only person speaking and meetings in which I cannot get a word in edgewise.

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Clearly, some business pundits, such as Kevin Eikenberry, view silence in meetings as functional and often positive, such as by giving individuals time to think. Others see silence in meetings as a consequence of the speaker or the chair – not the problem of the audience. I’ll get back to the functional value of silence below.

That said, I cannot help but think that silence in meetings is a political strategy – conscious or not. This is not my area, as I am not focused on interpersonal communication, but some cursory search suggests that very little research has been done on the interpersonal functions of silence. While under-researched, others such as Richard Johannesen (1974), have identified this as a topic in need of more systematic research – apparently to little effect.

Ambiguity. In politics, silence is often read as a lack of support. If politicians do not express their support for their leadership, for example, it is generally assumed that they are opposed, or at least not supportive. Alternatively, in many meetings and in interpersonal communication, silence is often read as a sign of deference – as if one is listening or thinking about what was said. Of course, the degree that silence could be read as supportive or oppositional suggests that it is a safe position. Others can read what they want to read in silence, but not be able to prove their case, leaving the silent in a more ambiguous position. And ambiguity is good in politics.

Time Delay. In addition, silence and the ambiguity it creates will enable individuals to take more time to decide on their response. If you can wait to express your views, you can take a more politically acceptable position.

Private Flexibility. Silence in public also permits multiple positions in private. One can tell the proponents and opponents of a particular idea that they support their position.

So this ambiguity, strategic delay, and private flexibility make silence golden in the interpersonal politics of meetings. But is it constructive for the group or institution?

Here I think the idea that every organization needs idea generators, idea killers, and idea maintainers to innovate provides with  a different take. I like this idea, and believe it could be applied to meetings as well. The problem is that those who remain silent are neither generating ideas, killing ideas, or maintaining them. This is okay if silence gives space to those who generate, kill, or maintain new ideas. But if too many remain silent, this could be dysfunctional for the meeting, and the organization.

Others have argued a stronger case against silence, with Leslie A. Perlow and Stephanie Williams suggesting that silence could be killing companies, finding that:

“But it is time to take the gilt off silence. Our research shows that silence is not only ubiquitous and expected in organizations but extremely costly to both the firm and the individual. Our interviews with senior executives and employees in organizations ranging from small businesses to Fortune 500 corporations to government bureaucracies reveal that silence can exact a high psychological price on individuals, generating feelings of humiliation, pernicious anger, resentment, and the like that, if unexpressed, contaminate every interaction, shut down creativity, and undermine productivity.”

My sense is that they are right to challenge conventional wisdom on the value of silence. Silence might well be politically strategic for individuals, but potentially not strategic for group or organizational innovation. So if you want to be politically safe, and organizationally conservative, if not deadly, then sit on your hands and hold your tongue.

Reference

Johannesen, Richard L. (1974), ‘The Functions of Silence: A Plea for Communication Research’, Western Speech, 38 (1): http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/10570317409373806?needAccess=true

Perlow, Leslie A., and Williams, Stephanie (2003), ‘Is Silence Killing Your Company?‘, Harvard Business Review, May.

What Meetings Should Academics Avoid?

Colleagues will tell you not to waste your time blogging, or spending too much time doing this or that, but few ever tell you not to waste your time in meetings. In fact, they ask you to come to meetings all the time, and seldom if ever advise you not to attend a meeting, however problematic the topic or the expected likelihood of a meaningful discussion. Seeing my own colleagues on the meeting treadmill, largely of their own making, I thought I should give some unsolicited advice to the blogosphere of academics who need to have some framework for deciding what meetings to avoid.

So here are my preliminary thoughts on how to think about (avoiding) meetings that are unnecessary or otherwise a waste of time for academics on the publish, have impact, and perish road to promotion. But there are also some general rules:

  1. You can always say ‘no’ to being on a committee or taking on an administrative assignment. No competent administrator who understands scholarship would fault you.
  1. Leave as much governance and administration as possible to senior faculty, who have been promoted.
  1. Teaching trumps research, when teaching loads are reasonable. Research trumps administration and administrative meetings.
  1. Good citizenship is important, but citizenship does not overcome weak teaching or research.

That said, here is a framework to help you think about what meetings you might avoid:

 

Type of Meeting
Administrative Training Networking Research
Unavoidable, unless Conflicting with Higher Priority, e.g., field research, teaching Faculty Meetings; Review with Head of Unit; Required (increasing in number) Social Events for Colleagues; Introducing Yourself or Your Work to Colleagues Presentations or Evaluations of your Work; Meet to Solve a Problem or Assign Work
Avoidable, but Go Retreats, Away Days, Meetings You Call, Meetings that could talk about you or your work Topic or Skill or Procedure you Want to Learn Coffee or tea with a colleague; Meal or drinks with 2-5 colleagues Seminars, Lectures, Roundtables, Coordination of Research Projects
Should or Must Avoid Long Faculty Meetings; Routine Meetings w/o Important Items; Large Meetings Efforts of Administrators to Save Their Time; Cover Their Backside Meeting to Impress Colleagues; Talk about Other Colleagues Top Down Efforts to Promote Collaboration

I’m sure that many will disagree with my advice, or have better ideas or frameworks, so I’d like to hear them. Meeting overload is a real problem.