Sunday, March 10, 2013

Group process social lit review: The Future of Boards

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.


There are many compelling reasons to add The Future of Boards: Meeting the Governance Challenges of the Twenty-first Century to your library. The context of the 2012 book, edited by Harvard faculty member Jay Lorsch, is corporate governance. But, like Richard Leblanc's book reviewed here last week, the concepts covered within can be applied directly or adapted easily to the nonprofit setting.


While there are lessons to be learned and questions to be asked in each chapter, one in particular sent the wheels spinning wildly (and sparked a rather unfortunate 'deja vu' flash). Two big ideas make the chapter, titled "Recognizing Negative Boardroom Group Dynamics," compelling reading. In it, authors Katharina Pick and Kenneth Merchant describe the kinds of "board tensions and trade-offs" that leaders must recognize and balance. They also share the nine pathologies that are likely to emerge when they fail to find that balance.

Today, I'll introduce you to the tensions and invite your reactions and nonprofit examples. Balancing tensions between a range of needs that exist whenever individual adults gather to engage in collaborative work can be a delicate and challenging process. How a group leader manages those tensions may be the difference between collective success and crippling group neurosis.

Social-Cohesion: Pick and Merchant describe this tension as "the total field of forces that bind a group of individuals together and keep members wanting to be part of the group" (p. 117). When it's working well, board members want to be part of a successful collaborative effort - especially when they can see how that effort is making a difference and moving ever closer to the mission. When it's not, members may find themselves deep in the muck of groupthink.  They may stifle their inner voices that tell them that the board is heading down a wrong path for fear of rocking the boat and being labeled an irritant. Or they may get so caught up in the energy of the moment that they ignore that voice in the first place.

Dissension: The authors describe this as "the degree to which dissent should be allowed to exist or even be encouraged in board discussions" (p. 117). That can be a fine line, indeed. Most of us go to great lengths to avoid conflict in our lives. Some of us go to such extremes that we surround ourselves with those who think just like us and will only affirm the correctness of our views. Taken to such extremes, that's an unhealthy way to govern.

We're smart enough to know that, at least intellectually. In practice, sitting across from the individual who holds a different perspective can be downright uncomfortable. While I have no independent evidence of this, I believe that some of us may go to greater pains to avoid dissension in the nonprofit boardroom. We're volunteers, donating our valuable time toward a common vision of a better future. We don't want to spend that time, or energy, arguing.

But we need a range of perspectives to make the best decisions possible. We need someone to challenge us to think beyond our limited worldview and stretch that view closer to our mission. We need to feel that our voices will be heard and respected when we're in the minority. A skilled board leader will find ways to manage open, rich and productive discussions.

Psychological Safety: This is defined by the authors as "the shared belief that the group is a safe place for risk taking, sharing unpopular ideas, and admitting errors" (p. 118). When we're the minority, we value working in a space where we can express our views without retribution. We all need that, even when we're part of the majority.  We especially need this sense of safety when we're new to the board, learning about how members interact and share their knowledge. We need to know that we can ask the "dumb" questions without being ridiculed.

Merchant and Pick describe the extreme of this tension as social loafing, a phenomenon that has popped up so frequently in my reading recently that it's destined for a separate post down the road.  In a nutshell, social loafing occurs when a member's overall commitment to fulfilling one's responsibilities in a group setting is lower than it would be if made solely as an individual.

Collectivist-Feelings: Pick and Merchant define this as having "a sense of being a group - a collective engaged in a joint task" (p. 119). It's built around consensus about what that task is: how we collectively define governance and what it looks like to our board. To what are we committing to do? What can/must we do as a group that we are unable to do as individuals? For what are we accountable? How will we know we have succeeded?

Diversity-of-Thought: If we succeed at recruiting and engaging the diversity of perspectives we know we need, we reduce the risk of the unhealthy social cohesion described in the earlier tension. What this one calls for is the kind of balance that values and draws upon the range of perspectives, knowledge and wisdom in the room without becoming polarized. When that happens, Pick and Merchant say, "a group collectively makes a more extreme decision than the individual directors would have chosen to make individually" (pp. 119-120).

Their description of the flip side of this one surprised and yet resonated: "there is likely to be less shared information among group members" (p. 120). "Group knowledge" may not include individual knowledge that one or a smaller group of members hold. The result: limited access to the wisdom in the room. People may hold it in when what they know doesn't fit with what the group knows. Still processing this one, but I can pretty much guarantee that I've been on both ends of that equation.

Strong-Leader: We need leaders who are strong enough to paint a compelling version of the mission and vision and lay out clear path toward it for the board to walk in the near future. We need leaders who are strong enough to hold us accountable when we drag our feet or fail to live up to our specific commitments. But we don't need a dictator, nor to we need someone so inflexible that we can't adapt when circumstances require a change in approach.

What clicked for you? What examples do you have, from either extreme, with what outcomes? What factors facilitate the kind of culture where boards can engage and succeed?

In the next post, I'll share the nine pathologies that Pick and Merchant say emerge when we fail to balance these tensions.


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