“I’m the chair of an ASX-listed board and have a diverse group of directors. Two of them have enormous expertise, but are very quiet and don’t contribute much in meetings. I’ve spoken to them privately and asked them direct questions in the meeting, but nothing has shifted. What else can I do?”
Contributing during board meetings is a fundamental requirement of directors, but it sounds like someone on your board didn’t get that memo. Your board is not alone in this.
Why some directors don’t participate in meetings — and why they should
Some people are naturally introverted, but that’s no excuse for silence in the boardroom. Directors are there to do a job — analysing information, forming views and sharing these in meetings.
Sometimes, quiet people are waiting until a topic comes up in their areas of expertise, but individual directors are accountable for all decisions of the board, not just those where they are experts. Active participation on each agenda item is crucial for directors, primarily because involvement strengthens the analysis process and creates more defensible board decisions. This is why good chairs seek input from all directors — it sharpens attention and spreads the responsibility for collective decision-making. Finally, one of the most common reasons directors give for not contributing is the fear that if they say something uninformed or naive, they will look stupid. However, in my experience, gaining a reputation for not participating, of being unwilling to carry your share of the intellectual load and instead allowing others to do all the heavy lifting, is much worse than looking naive.
How can quiet directors participate more in meetings?
The answer lies in what it means to “contribute” in a meeting. We all know the obvious meaning — to put forward your views on the topic at hand. However, there are two equally important, but often overlooked, ways to contribute in discussions.
First, directors can ask questions for understanding by showing curiosity and encouraging others to share their knowledge. You may not be the topic expert, but you can become an informed participant — reviewing the board papers, attending to others’ ideas, formulating good questions and listening to the answers. Informed participation engages a director in all meeting discussions and, when done consistently, builds solidarity around board decisions.
Second, directors can clarify and endorse perspectives they agree with and make that agreement visible. This can range from vigorous nods and “I couldn’t have said it better myself” right up to summarising the most convincing ideas and checking that you have understood. Why be so vocal when the point is already made? Because this adds credibility and weight to the view — at least two people thought it had merit. Clarifying and supporting is also a great way to demonstrate teamwork and build trust with colleagues.
Three chairing strategies to encourage active participation
Set the expectation: A chair should communicate early and unequivocally to their whole board that active participation in discussion is fundamental to the director role and essential for building trust and consensus.
Educate on ways to participate: A chair can coach reserved directors in alternative modes of contribution, emphasising that they can also add value by asking insightful questions or endorsing peers’ perspectives. Using practical examples, role modelling and constructive feedback can help individuals improve their participation skills.
Assign roles in meetings: In preparing for meetings, a chair can allocate subject matter expert roles to quieter directors for agenda items where they have experience. This ensures participation on at least that topic and builds the directors’ skills and reputation as meeting contributors.
While quiet directors are common, hopefully these tips give you a better understanding of why directors don’t contribute, some compelling arguments for why they should, and ideas of how you as a chair can make participation the norm.
Rob Newman is an organisational psychologist and facilitator of the AICD’s Boardroom Mastery course
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