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.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Big board birthday: 30 years of governance

Happy board birthday to me.

Thirty years ago - more or less - my nonprofit governance journey began. I had no idea what boards did. I had no idea I was joining a board (True!). But the journey I launched at age 24 in Sheridan, Wyoming, changed my life in ways too powerful to fully articulate.

Yes, my introduction to board work came as a surprise. My friend and news editor, Linda, decided I needed to get involved in the community. In a recruiting tactic I'd never recommend to others, she greeted me one morning with, "Congratulations. You've been elected to the Women's Center board."

Since I hadn't applied to serve on the Women's Center board, that was a bit of a surprise.

"Congratulations," she continued. "You've been elected secretary."


"By the way," she said. "You'll be attending our victim advocate training. It's required for all board members."


Since I knew better than to question (or doubt) Linda, I assumed my seat on the board, took notes, and attended the training.

While I remember every word she uttered that morning, I don't recall exactly when it took place. What I do remember - and what I count as my board anniversary - was March 16, 1983, the middle of the mandatory training that turned my worldview completely upside down and inside out.

That I remember that particular date, and that I use it to mark the start of my board commitment, always has been an arbitrary choice. As I dug into board service and found that I liked the work, it was as good a day as any to acknowledge, even though it wasn't my actual anniversary.

With 30 years of wisdom - and more than a few boardroom scars - behind me, it makes perfect sense. Sitting in that training on March 16, I came face to face with the reason the Women's Center existed: the mission I hadn't yet understood. It clashed with my own limited life experiences and exploded everything I thought I knew about the world.

It also compelled me. I began to understand why I was called to serve. I made the Women's Center mission my own. I was ready to lead.

My time on that first board was short, as life led me to another community and new opportunities to serve. But it embedded in my heart and my psyche two messages that have kept me going for three decades.

One, board service is a unique leadership opportunity, a call to shape and advance a better future for ourselves and others. It carries with it remarkable responsibilities that should be respected and supported.

Two, when board members connect deeply to the mission - when they have a chance to make it their own - they are transformed and gain capacity to transform.

My wish for all board members is that you have that experience at least once. It may not happen with every board on which you serve. That certainly hasn't been the case for me. But when you have that one glorious moment when you get it, you get to see the nobility and the power of nonprofit governance.

Boards matter. The work that we do matters. We deserve the chance to capture that vision for ourselves and to have the support we need to transform our communities.

I am grateful for Linda, for the Women's Center board and staff who launched my journey, and for all who have allowed me to join them in making a difference in the world over the last 30 years.''

Image purchased from Big Stock Photo and Vector Art.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Overheard: Spring thaw edition

I've been collecting so many great resources to share in the past few days that I knew I had to create some space for this week's favorite board-related links.

Carol Burnett's advice to disengaged nonprofit boards (Erik Anderson)

I don't know that my send-off always would be as warm as Ms. Burnett's, but the message of the post was a welcome sentiment. If they're not prepared to step up and do the major work of governance, we need to cut our ties. If vets overstayed their ability to think broadly and openly about the complex issues we face, it's time to retire them. Life's too short, and the work too important, to waste a board seat on someone not willing to lead.

Nonprofit board service as servant leadership? (Kevin Monroe)

There are many reasons to appreciate Kevin's framing of board service as servant leadership, but topping my list is the quote by Robert Greenleaf which, I believe, connects directly to the higher purposes that call most of us to serve. It's a good reminder and place for grounding our roles as nonprofit leaders.

Starting a nonprofit: 10 considerations in electing the initial board (Gene Takagi)

While I've served on countless boards in the last 30 years, only one has been the governing body of a start-up nonprofit. Since my fellow founding board members and I are in the midst of building a leadership team from scratch, Gene's latest post was particularly timely.

Discovering star performers on your board (JoAnn Yoshimoto)

Regular readers know my fatigue with the constant barrage of "a million ways our boards let us down" messages. This Movie Mondays video offers a lovely break from that mode: Yoshimoto encouraging us to stop long enough to appreciate talent that may go unnoticed. What hidden jewels already sit on your board? How can you help them reach your full potential?

Four nonprofit leadership traits needed now (Mark Fulop)

I couldn't help wondering how these traits - making tough people decisions, ability to execute on strategy, ability to innovate, and ability to think and act systemically - might translate in the nonprofit boardroom.

15 ways to transform your board of directors into fundraising champions (Marc Koenig)

As a reluctant fundraiser, I appreciate supportive strategies that acknowledge common fears and challenges that prevent some of us from stepping up. Seeing number 7 on the list also was nice.

What's driving your nonprofit: Opinion or expertise? (Simone Joyaux)

Because, well, it just needed to be said.

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.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Group process social lit review: Inside the Boardroom

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.

It all started with this book.

I had two reasons for purchasing Richard Leblanc and James Gillies' book Inside the Boardroom: How Boards Really Work and the Coming Revolution in Corporate Governance. First, Richard is an acquaintance and this was a chance to learn more about his work. Second, this title offered an excellent opportunity to expand my limited understanding of corporate governance.

I read the first few chapters, happily absorbing information and comparing the corporate and nonprofit environments. Then things changed when I got to chapter 6. The tone and topic of that chapter (titled "The Effective Board: Function Not Form") resonated and surprised for the exactly the same reason: the invitation to look beyond the usual focus on structure and into what actually takes place in the boardroom. It resonated because my own research explored questions at the boardroom level. It surprised because, well, that's just not where most research - at least nonprofit  governance - tends to focus.

In chapter 6, Dr. Leblanc did more than invite us to consider viewing board work through a different lens. He also provided a framework for doing that, a new Board Effectiveness Model built on three elements:

  • Structure
  • Processes and 
  • Member competencies

Yes, how we structure our work is important. But that's not the whole story. Just as critical are the processes (how we interact with, and build off of, each other) and the competencies we bring as individual members. As my wise friend Richard says, it's about "group chemistry."

Then came chapter 7.  My focus shifted from fellow governance researcher to board member as I read this quote (p. 156):

A board is not some amorphous entity that functions independently of its members. It is a group of people who have individual prejudices and views, behavioural patterns and cultural backgrounds. Whether a board works well and makes good decisions, or is dysfunctional and makes poor ones, depends largely on the manner in which board members work together.

I have a master's degree in organizational communication and decades of experience working in groups. This is basic, common sense. Yet having someone articulate it in this context sparked a personal "aha" moment.

Chapter 7 (which Richard has generously made available to readers - click here to download and read) lays out a framework for describing individual membership characteristics that contribute to, or inhibit, board effectiveness. Dr. Leblanc first identifies three individual member effectiveness factors (p. 158):

  • Independence of mind
  • Specific competencies
  • Behavioral characteristics

How do these three criteria change how we think about the kinds of board members we need to govern well? How do they impact how we define our board's recruitment needs and processes?

Richard then introduces three behavioral characteristics of directors (pp. 162-163):

  • Persuasive/non-persuasive
  • Dissent/consensus
  • Individual/collective

Where one falls on each continuum helps to define which of Dr. Leblanc's 10 director types - five functional and five dysfunctional - fits one's role in the boardroom.

The functional:

  • Change agent
  • Consensus-builder
  • Challenger
  • Counsellor
  • Conductor-chair *

The dysfunctional:

  • Controller
  • Conformist
  • Critic
  • Cheerleader
  • Caretaker-chair *

(See the illustrations on pp. 166 and 167 for a visual representation of how they relate to each other and the three continua described above.)

Dr. Leblanc has shared an additional gift, Chapter 8, with us. In this chapter, Richard describes each of the director types in greater detail and offers a set of questions and a set of sample "directors' views about, and actions, of..." for each director type. These tools provide perfect prompts for identifying the personalities already in the boardroom. I recognized board members with whom I've served, board members I've encountered in various training and consultation settings and - yes - even myself in the descriptions.

The typology also gives us a new way of thinking about board diversity needs - a different way of thinking about the kinds of voices and perspectives needed for robust and healthy board deliberations (and, of course, those to avoid in that same quest). Do we have change agents who will push us to reach further and higher in healthy ways? Do we have consensus builders who can find the linkages between diverging perspectives and find solutions acceptable to all? Do we have counsellors who can reach across boundaries and make connections inside and outside of the boardroom? How about challengers who will question and not let us take the quick and easy option? 

Chapter 9 makes Inside the Boardroom a must read/must purchase. In it, the author describes two types of board chairs - the functional conductor-chair and its dysfunctional counterpart, the caretaker-chair - in deep detail. Boards require the former to lead them toward effectiveness. If the chair is the latter, a caretaker, the board risks floundering under leadership that errs on either side of over- or  under-controlling. Equipped with greater awareness of the personal characteristics best able to lead us to an effective governance experience, we will make wiser choices when selecting our next board leader.

There is so much to appreciate about this marvelous resource. First, Leblanc's Model of Board Effectiveness (p. 139) and 10 director types are specific, research-informed resources that will be valuable additions to our governance toolboxes. We can use the model to think more expansively about how to enhance our board's performance. The 10 director types give us a framework for identifying and discussing the types of behaviors that foster healthy boardroom activity and new behavioral targets when recruiting new members.

Second, it opens the door to the broader conversation that we need to be having, about about how human nature and the 'stuff' that we haul into the boardroom with us impacts what we create there.

I drew personal value at both levels in my reading. I invite you to read the two chapters that the author has shared with us - and ultimately purchase the book - and join me in conversation about what is shared there.

What questions does this work answer for you? What questions does it introduce? How can we apply Richard's work to reshape the way we govern?

Friday, March 1, 2013

Overheard: Beyond 'behind' edition

I'm actually red-faced over the gap between this latest edition of my favorite links and the last published here. As you can imagine, the list of goodness that begged to be shared is by now miles long.

I can never cover even the "best" of the best at this point, but I will offer some of my more recent favorites this time around.

Engaging board members in authentic leadership (Movie Mondays)

This week's "Movie Monday" video launched the week in a thought-provoking way. Here's a (sadly) novel message:  encouraging board and board member ownership of the mission, their goals and the processes that move them closer. What would happen if we did that? What if we actually stepped aside and let them lead? What do we fear that prevents that from happening?

The chair of the nonprofit board (Arizona State University Lodestar Center)

 This rather comprehensive list of questions potential board chairpersons should be asking before committing may send some running for the hills. But it's actually a fair general view of the significant responsibilities that come with the job. I applaud any attempt to prompt thoughtful consideration of what one is taking on when one assumes this major leadership role. Whether or not your list of questions mirrors this one directly, it's a good starting point for the kind of pre-commitment reflection that should take place.

Problem boards or board problem? (Richard Chait, William Ryan and Barbara Taylor)

This is a a fresh publication (thanks, Nonprofit Quarterly) of a segment of a classic book, Governance as Leadership. In this chapter, the authors argue that board problems are not one of failure to perform, but of what we are asking them to do in the first place. It's a conversation that we to need, and a foundation for rethink everything we believe about nonprofit governance. It also deeply influenced my own thinking and pretty much everything offered here.

Ten biggest mistakes boards and executives make (Jan Masaoka)

Ouch. I recognize most of them and am guilty of a few as well. How about you? I'm glad Jan challenges common to both sides of the nonprofit leadership team. We all have roles to play in working together more effectively. Which of these mistakes ring most familiar for you and your board? What step(s) can you take to change that?

All a-board! How personalities affect your board (Karl Mathiasen)

If you've read the past couple of posts here, you won't be surprised to learn that this one caught my eye immediately. Our individual quirks and modes of interacting color how we participate in boardroom life. We grumble when a fellow board member inserts him/herself in some way we deem less than constructive. We wonder what their motives really are when they act in certain ways. But do we actually recognize, name and confront those whose actions erect barriers to full and collegial participation?

Board engagement: How to enhance it (Carlo Cuesta)

In this recent post, Carlo does more than spotlight one of my favorite board engagement tools, the question. He takes it a step further in discussing the value of identifying and framing active questions - questions that call for action - rather than passive queries that focus on "what do I need to know?" The distinction is critical: the right question invites (or dare we suggest demands?) board members into meaningful reflection and work that are essential to governance. How we engage with that question ultimately shapes how we govern.