Monday, March 18, 2013

Avoiding 9 boardroom pathologies

This post is part of a new occasional series spotlighting the key books and other resources that are influencing my thinking on the group dynamics that impact what happens in the nonprofit boardroom. It is part of my commitment to exploring group process and practice in 2013.

What happens when we are unable to manage the boardroom tensions described in last week's post? According to authors Katharina Pick and Kenneth Merchant, we risk coming head to head with nine different pathologies that can cripple the good work that we've gathered to do. It's not pretty - or painless.

In the same chapter where they describe the tensions, Pick and Merchant describe potential outcomes when we fail to balance them within our boards. As I read each pathology description, I found myself remembering at least one difficult group experience. See if any ring familiar for you:

Excessive conformity (p. 121). Ah, peer pressure... It may not be as personally painful as it was in our junior high years, but it still exists - and still has power - in adulthood. Boards can be especially susceptible to the pressure to conform, according to Pick and Merchant. Unfortunately, that temptation to run with the majority also comes with an outcome we must work to avoid: faulty, ill-informed decisions. Board members need not only feel safe challenging the status quo, they need to see doing that as part of their job. The authors say this scenario is most likely when a group is high on the social cohesion continuum, group norms discourage dissension, psychological safety and collectivist feelings are high, and diversity low.

Negative group conflict (p. 121). Debate that stretches our thinking and out decision making capacity is a healthy thing. Clashing interaction styles, conflicting values and plain old interpersonal dust-ups are not. According to Pick and Merchant, they're more likely to invade the boardroom "when social cohesion is low, dissent is frequent, psychological safety and collective feelings are low, and the board is very diverse" (p. 121). A savvy board leader, able to channel varied personal styles and create a safe space for working, can avoid the type of conflict that stifles productive group work.

Politicking and dysfunctional coalition formation (p. 122). We all have power. We all have ways of using our power for good. We also have the capacity to use it to build personal agendas, work against those who disagree with us, and otherwise create roadblocks to effective group work. In nonprofit governance, where we regularly deal with complex issues that have no easy answers and where we're called upon to be effective stewards of the resources entrusted to us, that kind of power run wild is deadly. Again, having a board leader who is strong enough to direct our energies in the same direction - toward our mission - and build a sense of collective ownership of that common purpose is our best hope of avoiding this situation. According to Merchant and Pick, we're most at risk of this poisoning our work environment "when social cohesion is low, when dissension is suppressed, and when psychological safety and collectivist feelings are weak" (p. 122).

Habitual routines (p. 122). A routine that helps boards work more efficiently is a good thing. Habitual routines that prompt groups to "proceed mindlessly and effortlessly through a particular routine" are not (p. 122). If the routine becomes an autopilot that shuts down opportunities to reflect, reassess and adapt when necessary, we have a problem. According to the authors, boards are most at risk of falling into these unhealthy routines when the psychological safety and dissension tensions are low.

Shared information bias (p. 123). I've been up close and personal with both sides of this one. Pick and Merchant describe shared information bias this way: "the tendency for groups to spend the most time and consideration on information that is shared by most of the group members, rather than on information that may be more important or valuable but is held by only one or two members of the group" (p. 123). The wisdom of the group can be a powerful thing that fosters clarity and consensus that moves everyone into the same, mission-driven direction. But it also has the potential to create blind spots that close them off from the red flags that predict danger and from the opportunities to adapt to shifting circumstances. Board members need to not only have access to the full range of information needed to make good decisions, they need to be open to seeing and acting on it.

Pluralistic ignorance (p. 123). Whew. Been there, experienced this one... Pluralistic ignorance is "when individual members of a group do not voice an opinion because they assume it to be very different from the majority of other group members" (p. 123). The rest of the board doesn't access our conflicting information, because we don't share it. We may not see that it would make a difference, especially if we perceive others' minds to be made up. We may fear rocking the board, especially if we don't want to deal with the unpleasantness that our contradictory information might spark. We may believe what we know really isn't important, or that we've discovered it too late. When we withhold information, for whatever the reason, we limit our board's capacity to make the best decision possible. Pluralistic ignorance is a greater risk when dissension and psychological safety are low and the leadership weak.

Social loafing (p. 123). I mentioned social loafing in last week's post. We know and understand our collective responsibility for group goals and roles, but that doesn't automatically translate into individual accountability for making them happen. We may feel less vested in doing our part, whatever that part might be, because it's the group's job. We hide behind our collective responsibility. Of course, a group's potential for success decreases when some of its members fails to live up to their part of the responsibility. If a board - or any group - tolerates inactive members over time, it is destined to fall short.  Pick and Merchant say that social loafing most likely to occur when collectivist feelings and psychological safety are high, diversity low, and strong leadership is missing.

Group polarization (p. 124). Finally, there's group polarization, which Pick and Merchant describe as "when a group makes a decision collectively that is more extreme than the members would have made had their individual votes simply have been tallied" (p. 124). Something about the heat of the moment, and the heady give and take that feeds that moment, prompts us to take risks and head into directions as a group that we probably would not have made on our own. We wander off the deep end, to sometimes disastrous ends. This one is more likely with low dissension and low psychological safety. It's also more common in boards that are not diverse.

Which of these pathologies ring most familiar? Which seem to be most troublesome and challenging to the work that boards do? How can board leaders manage the tensions that create environments where they are allowed to wreak havoc, before they have the chance? What pathology has the greatest potential to transform board practice if we could only understand and confront it?

Shall we compare notes?

Image purchased from Big Stock Photo and Vector Art.


Nancy Iannone said...

I've seen,in been in the middle of, some of these situations over the years. Strong leadership and clear expectations can help prevent or resolve issues that develop. It also is amazing how much difference adding or removing a person can change the dynamics of the room. Change for the better is certainly possible!

Debra Beck, EdD said...

Whew, that makes two of us, Nancy! I must admit that writing about each of these pathologies left the same shiver down my spine as they did when I first read about them.

I agree 100 percent with your comment about strong leadership and clear expectations. Without them, we're almost destined to fail.

I also can think back to a handful of situations, both as a board member and as a facilitator working with a board, where one could feel a palpable shift in the room as someone either left or entered.

You know, those collective experiences really are what prompted this series. As important as roles, rules and other structural elements are to effective governance, how we actually interact when we get together still influences what is possible (and what is not).