Letters to the Boardroom Coach – Dealing with the Human Factor

Monday, 19 December 2022

Rob Newman
Organisational Psychologist and Boardroom Advisor

    AICD’s organisational-psychologist-in-the-boardroom Rob Newman receives a lot of questions about managing difficult boards. Here are a couple of the more common issues and his recommendations for how to deal with them.

    Dear Boardroom Coach,

    I joined the board of a small not-for-profit several years ago and have been chair for two years now.  I joined because I wanted to work with people passionate about making a difference, but I now find myself increasingly frustrated with my board. Specifically, people reacting negatively when they don’t get their way in meetings, either getting upset or sullenly withdrawing from conversation or both. The outcome is that our meetings tend to tiptoe around sensitive topics and we often can’t agree on important decisions.  What can I do to improve things?

    Frustrated Chair


    Dear Frustrated,

    Congratulations on trying to solve a not uncommon problem with boards – the inability to cooperate. We might think this is an issue primarily with non-professional directors or NFP boards, but it happens in boardrooms at the big end of town too.  It’s a big problem because it prevents boards from dealing with controversial issues, where views diverge the most, which are often the most important ones.

    While poor cooperation can have many causes, your situation sounds like a failure of trust and respect, which are the keystones of collective decision making. If directors do not believe that their colleagues will respect their views, over time they will not trust enough to share them.  However, having your views respected is not the same as getting your way.

    Respect in the boardroom involves directors recognizing that different perspectives are a natural consequence of independent minds engaging with complex issues. That is, differences of ideas are to be expected and even to be encouraged in effective board meetings. The trick is managing expectations of how the group should engage on the contributions of individuals.

    From my experience, people require three conditions to feel respected and build trust in fellow directors. Firstly, all participants in a meeting must feel they can have their say in discussions. Secondly, people need to feel that their views are listened to and valued by their colleagues. Importantly, valued does not mean agreed with, it means being given a fair hearing. And thirdly, all participants must agree that board decisions are a collective process, often based on consensus, sometimes based on majority. That is individuals, no matter how passionate, powerful or smart they are, shouldn’t expect to always get their way in the boardroom.

    From how you describe your board meetings, it appears that one of these conditions is not being met.  Here are some tips to ensure that you cover all three conditions for trust.

    • Set the scene – If a topic is complex or likely to raise a diversity of views, state this at the outset.  Then explain that the first step will be to get all the views on the table, and that only then can the group explore similarities and differences in the pursuit of a collective position.
    • Expectation to contribute – As chair, you should encourage everyone to speak if they have a view. If getting the discussion moving is like pulling teeth, consider using a straw poll to quickly assess positions at the outset.  Eg who would be supportive if we did …X?  Who would be supportive on Y?  What are the other options?
    • Paraphrase repetitive views:  If a particular director continues to repeat the same point a number of times, it often means they don’t feel they’ve been heard.  When the chair summarises the person’s view for the group, they will prove that they have.
    • Commit to collective decisionmaking:  Boards that practice collective decisionmaking require all directors to follow a simple rule – speak your piece, then hold your peace. Trust that if your views are worthwhile, your colleagues will pick them up and run with them.  At the right time, the chair reminding the group of this can set the appropriate expectations.

    It is important to remember that board work is a team sport – it takes practice and time to develop the habits of working together.

    Dear Boardroom Coach,

    Our chair is not good.  Don’t get me wrong - he’s a good guy and he is trying his best, but he can’t run a meeting. The agenda is fine, but for each item on the agenda it’s almost like the chair just states the topic and says “so who wants to start us off?”.  With no further guidance, the rest of the discussion is a free for all. Some people talk too much, some don’t contribute at all, the discussion goes all over the place, and at the end the chair tries to summarise, but it is often garbled or unactionable. The chair seems to realise things aren’t working, but each meeting is just a repeat performance.  The CEO must be really frustrated, because few clear directions come from these board meetings!

    Chaotic meetings


    Dear Chaotic,

    I think many of us have sympathy for your situation - ineffective meetings are the bane of corporate life. We’ve all had to sit in meetings that lack clarity of purpose and suffer through discussions that went everywhere and nowhere. Unfortunately, research consistently shows that at least 70 per cent of meetings are considered by participants to be ineffective. So you are not alone in this problem, but where to start?

    In your situation, it sounds like the chair wants to do a good job but doesn’t know how and that is a positive you can work with. It means that you can probably raise the problem with them and they will probably recognise and even share your concerns. But you will need to do this in a non-threatening manner. If they feel you are blaming or attacking them, they could become defensive and shut down. Start by showing your intention is to work with them, then describe your concerns and ask if they feel the same.  When you agree the nature of the problem, you can look for solutions together.

    A private conversation with the chair on this might start with…

    “Can we talk about something that’s concerning me and which I think might be a bother for you too?”

     “I’m concerned that our meetings don’t work as well as they could, and I wondered if you felt the same?”

    To reduce the threat to them at the start, it’s important to get their buy-in to discuss the issues.

    Then go on to describe the problem with specific facts…

    “ I can see you prepare a good meeting agenda and you summarise at the end of each agenda item, but the board discussions don’t always go so well. Some people talk too much while others stay quiet, and we often go on tangents away from the core topics.  I can see this makes it hard for you to summarize our conclusions and agreed actions.  Which I guess would make it hard for our CEO to get actionable takeaways from the meeting.  What are your thoughts on this?”

    While it’s not always easy to raise concerns about the behaviour of others directly with them, done well it is the most efficient way to solve problems. Here “done well” means recognising the other person’s positive actions, being specific about the issues by using facts (even referring to specific meetings if required) and encouraging the other person to contribute to the conversation. If by your actions they can see your intent is to help the situation and not to blame them, people are usually willing to at least talk. If you present the issues in the form of facts rather than generalisations, you are more likely to find areas of agreement.  And if you can agree to work on at least some of the problems, you’re 80 per cent of the way to solving them.

    So now let’s imagine that you and the chair agree that boardroom discussions could be better facilitated – what specific things would you need to improve?  Good meetings are more than just a clear agenda and a stopwatch. Setting the scene for quality discussions, recognising different perspectives and fostering consensus are skills that require planning and practice. But there are some basics that get you much of the way there. Here are some simple tips that are likely to lead to immediate improvement in your meetings.

    • Goal setting: Each agenda item should start with the end in mind. The chair should state what they hope to produce at the end of discussion of the item, and in board meetings this is almost always some form of decision. Sometimes the conversation starter around the table might be exploring what the goal is in discussing that topic and who will implement the resulting decisions – and there is nothing wrong with that. Specific and agreed goals are key for quality board discussions.
    • Go around the room:  The chair should be monitoring that everyone has a chance to speak. Look for ‘tells’ in body language such as leaning forward, furrowed brows or hands near the mouth, and invite the person to speak.  People don’t have to talk on every topic, but they do need to feel they can if they have something to say.
    • Share the talk time: While speaking is to be encouraged, individuals dominating discussions is not. If this happens too often in your meetings, establishing a ground rule can be helpful. A good rule of thumb is that you have 40 seconds or less to make your point, then it‘s someone else’s turn.
    • Summarising emerging consensus: It is common practice that at the conclusion of an agenda item, the chair states the outcome as a decision or resolution for the board to endorse. However, if deliberations have been long, wide-ranging or robust, it can be hard to summarise the outcome unless you keep track of progress along the way. For longer or complex discussions, it is useful to periodically summarise where the group is at relative to the goal of the agenda item.  Something like..  “ Can I summarise our progress: we are trying to achieve … X, and at this point the emerging consensus appears to be Y. Is that how others are seeing it?”  Periodic summaries allow the group to recognise progress on the topic and make the final summary and documenting of the decision easier.

    And remember, the chair is not the only one in the boardroom who can use the above strategies. While we look to chairs to lead in meetings, directors can also help out by encouraging colleagues to speak up, being mindful of sharing the talk time and summarizing discussions.  Essential to this is an open and supportive relationship between directors and their chair. Good luck with yours.

    More about Boardroom Mastery

    Boardroom Mastery™ is a transformational three-day course designed for experienced directors. It combines an immersive board simulation with other experienced directors; Real-world challenges led by expert facilitators; Personal analysis and debriefs from an organisational psychologist; and 360° feedback to challenge your thinking and behaviour in high-pressure conditions. For more detailed information, please visit Boardroom Mastery.

    Read a previous article on boardroom culture here. How to avoid dysfunctional board culture

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