I hadn't anticipated writing a follow-up to last week's post on Will Brown's research on board member participation in discussion and decision making. But in my own reflection, and after interacting here and elsewhere with readers interested in learning more about his work, the need for "the rest of the story" became clear.
The strong foundation laid by the antecedents that Brown's research identified - perceived ability, task ownership, values congruence, and trust and safety - is a critical first step. But it's just that: a first step. What unfolds once members are appropriately connected to the work shapes the quality of participation and, in the end, the quality of decisions made.
(Will outlined the rest of the model in the Alliance for Nonprofit Management webinar highlighting his work, and in a chapter of the book that he co-edited with Chris Cornforth, Nonprofit governance: Innovative perspectives and approaches. The description that follows draws from both sources.)
In addition to the antecedents, Brown research identified two mediators that impact boardroom discussion and decision making processes: situational constraints and group dynamics. The former includes elements that will be more familiar to students of nonprofit governance and, undoubtedly, anyone who's explored recent practitioner-focused literature. The latter addresses factors that are less frequently studied (or acknowledged) but that have at least equal power in determining the direction of what happens on the way to a decision.
Will shared five "situational constraints" that emerged in his research:
- Group size
- Meeting management
- Information flow
- Framing the conversation and
- Conflict management
How boards structure the work in the first place - how we set up situations for engagement - matters greatly. If board members don't have what they need to engage, he told webinar participants, they simply won't. Having the right number (neither too small not too large) of board members and having access to the right set of information in a timely manner are critical to quality deliberation and decision making.
The way in which board leaders frame the conversation up front sets the stage for discussions that invite full board member participation. Skillful facilitation is equally essential. Brown puts it this way in his chapter: "Careful facilitation is critical to move the conversation forward, while allowing for appropriate conflict."
Note that he doesn't call for no conflict. Rather, what his research uncovered was the need for leadership with the capacity and willingness to balance member participation, managing those who would dominate while encouraging quieter members to step up, speak out, and take equal ownership in what emerges from the interaction.
Board leaders' lack of success in managing these situational constraints "results in disengagement and frustration." That is why we must attend to the structural components of governance.
"Does the board actually function as a group?" Will posed that bottom-line question to webinar participants. We can bring them to the table, he said, but if we don't deal with the interpersonal stuff that comes with groups of people, we'll fail.
Brown highlighted five group dynamics elements identified in his research:
- Dominant norms
- Patterns of behavior
- Social and emotional context
- Group cohesion
- Fault lines and sub-groups
Group norms can be functional or not. "Group norms that support critical decision-making, build appropriate cohesion, and minimize sub-groups are likely to encourage engagement and participation," he told the webinar audience.
Cohesion is a good thing - unless it becomes the end in itself, leading to group think and valuing getting along over asking necessary tough questions. Will found that "norms regarding critical thought improved decision quality when compared to norms of consensus." On the flip side of that is a damaged environment where factions emerge between board members and conflicting interests threaten to shut down the process completely.
What are the norms that drive your board's behavior? Do they encourage/expect members to speak up, especially when doing so runs counter to the prevailing sentiment? Do they encourage collegiality while welcoming dissent or the occasionally uncomfortable stretch? Do they demand thoughtful, critical decision making?
No, we cannot ignore the interpersonal factors that inevitably feed or challenge the board's capacity to work and to focus on its ultimate purpose.
Will's research: My takeaways
Moderating Will's webinar wasn't my first encounter with his research. While I still seem to catch something new with each encounter, I can offer a decent summary of what I consider to be the most salient aspects of the work for me today.
The big picture is, well, the big picture. This work offers a broader perspective of what happens in the nonprofit boardroom and the factors that shape discussion and decision making processes. That, my friends, is noteworthy. There is obvious value in focusing attention on specific components of governance and deepening our collective understanding of specific aspects of board work. But equally important is the step back that this research takes, offering a more holistic view of boardroom deliberation processes and all that feeds or constrains it.
I chose to focus on the antecedents last time, because I truly believe that it's the most "newsworthy" isolated component of the larger research. So often our focus is on roles and responsibilities and activities once they're already in the boardroom. We needed this chance to look at what must happen before they get there. We must understand what they need, from whom, to have a reasonable chance for success. The four antecedents to engagement that emerged from this research provide that necessary foundation.
The two mediators are keys to understanding the process as a whole. Structural elements - and those factors that constrain them - matter. Obviously. But they are not enough by themselves. As this larger research effort made crystal clear, participation is a distinctly human process. We need to provide structures that not only aren't barriers to engagement but that facilitate engagement.
And the group dynamics element, whew. That has always felt like a big piece of the puzzle, but I have a new-found respect for its ultimate importance after this year's immersion in group process literature. Board members aren't "seats." They are human beings, bring human motivations, needs and issue with them into the room. How those human factors play out absolutely impacts not only the quality of our interactions, but the quality of our discussions and the decisions that emerge from them. Brown's research offers insight into the "how" as well as confirmation that that is true.
The practical question is this: What do we do with the gift that is Will Brown's research? How will we use what it offers us to change our board decision making practices?