The Paradox of Order

Whether We Like It or Not, Those of Us in Leadership Positions Are Keepers of the Business Culture.

By Thomas J. Roach

Most interoffice communication moved online in the past few months, and it became incumbent on managers to infuse a sense of order in the new unstructured environment.

Unfortunately, structured communication is counterintuitive. Whenever possible, we are inclined to dispense with rules. Conducting meetings from the comfort of our home offices in the midst of a crisis makes this particularly attractive, but don’t be tempted.

Minimally we need agendas, note takers and a process for speaking. Using online meeting platforms, managers can see participants on their screens. Attendees can raise their hands and be recognized. This eliminates the chaos of many people talking at once and allows more reticent members a chance to contribute.


Oddly enough, even though the group benefits from structure, they might not act like they appreciate it. A good manager will impose it anyway.

I learned this quite by accident at Joliet Junior College. The Press Club drafted me to be its president, and that required that I attend Student Government meetings. I found Student Government chaotic. Two students were appointed the previous year to co-chair the first meetings and oversee the election of new officers. Instead, they suspended the rules and monopolized discussion. There was no election.

After a few frustrating meetings, I demanded we follow the constitution, use Robert’s Rules of Order and hold an election. The other representatives agreed. Next thing I knew, I was elected president of Student Government, and I had to learn Robert’s Rules fast.

Memorizing and following parliamentary procedure turned out to be an unpopular, tedious process. One day, an ongoing disagreement between two committees flared into a shouting match, and I had to pound my gavel and insist that we follow Robert’s Rules. This seemed to unite everyone in opposition to my rulebook and me. Amid angry calls for impeachment and more shouting, I adjourned the meeting and walked out.

Big Mistake

My vice-president presided over a mob scene in my absence, and they began to make plans to replace me. Anyone who wants to maintain a position of leadership needs to be the last person to leave the room, but that’s a lesson for another column.

A week later I gaveled the next meeting to order and asked for a vote of confidence. The room got quiet. I said they should have a president they can support, and if they continued to support me, I was going to continue to follow parliamentary procedure.

The wrestling coach was our advisor. He was convinced I would lose. He illegally cast a ballot in my favor and reluctantly counted the votes. I knew I was out, but I felt good about standing up for my principles.

He handed me one of the ballots. There was a note; it said, “You’re a great president.” It felt good knowing at least someone understood. He handed me another one, “You’re doing a fine job, keep it up.”

The meeting was temporarily adjourned while the count went on at a table at the front of the room. The advisor looked at me and smiled and said, “They’re all like that.”

We had 27 voting members not counting the advisor, who shouldn’t have voted, and me, who didn’t vote; three voted no confidence, two abstained, and 22 supported me. He read the results to a standing ovation, and then he bored everyone with a pep talk.

Working from home, we become increasingly aware that companies are not bricks and mortar; they are people and ways of doing business. Whether we like it or not, those of us in leadership positions are keepers of the business culture. When the normal way of doing things is interrupted, it falls on us to maintain a sense of order – a responsibility never be more important it is now.

Thomas J. Roach Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Northwest since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].

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