Why It Matters to Learn Robert's Rules

Organizations carry our common life. We invest our time, our intelligence, our money, and our hopes in organizations. Like living organisms, organizations respond to new conditions in their surroundings with development, growth, and adaptation. Unlike plants and animals, the primary response of organizations to new conditions happens in meetings. The more complex the new condition, the more authority and clarity the organization needs from its meetings.

High-level meetings cannot function well without agreed-upon principles for how ideas are introduced, given attention, and, if appropriate, turned into action. Yet the quality of interactions in the business meetings of many organizations does not match the hopes we invest in organizations. Why is that? Are egos in the way? Is the mission of the organization unclear? Are the tools for meetings inadequate? Are people not trained in their use? Perhaps all of the above.

We have taken part in thousands of board meetings and legislative assemblies. Members of these bodies are usually aware that Robert’s Rules is the standard order for procedure. Asked why, many could articulate that Robert’s Rules of Order aims to help a group air differing opinions and make majority-rule decisions in a timely manner. Not a bad answer. Then they might add that they have only surface knowledge of the rules.

People know about making a motion and seconding it. They know that discussion should follow and that a motion can be changed—and that this is called "amending a motion"— but many feel unsure how to do it. They may think it sort of impolite to shout "Call the question!" to end discussion, but they often wish somebody would do just that. Of course, everybody knows that the vote of the majority becomes the organization’s decision. And what it means to adjourn. The rest of the rules are for the leaders to know.

But nobody cares much when a newly elected chair doesn’t know the rest of the rules, and discussion and debate bogs down in confusing or irrelevant ideas. "We’ll muddle through," they laugh. On the flip side of this tolerant indulgence is irritation, if not distrust, when someone invokes a rule most people don’t understand. Like a herd of gazelles, they are instantly alert to the jackal on the floor. Only manipulators and nerds know the rules that well. What an egotist. He’s jamming the works of our meeting for his own advantage. We hate that. We hate Robert’s Rules.

This knot of behaviors—acknowledging the need for rules, not learning them, not offering members practical help in learning them, distrusting the motives of those who do learn and use them, and complaining that meetings are boring—has the feel of a psychological complex, which the American Heritage Dictionary defines as "a group of related, often repressed ideas and impulses that compel characteristic or habitual patterns of thought, feelings, and behavior." The problem is widespread across the culture. In "A Failure of Nerve," the organizational systems genius Edwin Friedman calls ours a "leadership-toxic society" where the actions of the least mature often receive the most attention, all but blocking high-level functioning and effective adaptation.

This manual aspires to put tools in your hands—a good grasp of Robert’s Rules—to help you help your organization function like a living organism in meetings that respond to new conditions burgeoning forth from these new times.


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©Stephen H. Phelps 2009