Friday, February 14, 2014

Agenda item: Watch your (board) process

Agenda item 7: Assign rotating peer process watchers.

How do we increase board member awareness of the actions and attitudes that foster productive work in meetings? How do we help them recognize those that hinder collegiality and stifle deliberations? How do we help ensure that everyone is encouraged and expected to participate in governance?

Ask them to take turns serving as meeting process watchers.

Board leaders - and boards - benefit from a little help monitoring the ways in which interactions are unfolding: watching body language, identifying signs of trouble before they become problematic, and drawing out silent members.  Assigning individual members to pay particular attention to boardroom dynamics - act as process watchers - provides that assistance. It facilitates intervention in the moment, so that adjustments can be made in a timely manner and the board can stay on track.

Sharing that responsibility, by asking each board member to take a turn, offers other benefits for the individual and the board itself. Because they are asked to observe how people are interacting, they become more cognizant of group dynamics that are productive - or not. We become more aware of our own actions and attitudes that feed and challenge board performance, giving us the opportunity to change the latter.

So what does it mean to watch group process? In an article titled "Meeting Facilitation: The No-Magic Method," Berit Lakey offers an excellent overview of the kinds of markers to which a person serving in this role might be attuned:

  1. What was the general atmosphere in which the group worked? relaxed? tense?
  2. How were the decisions made?
  3. If there was any conflict, how was it handled?
  4. Did everybody participate? Were there procedures that encouraged participation?
  5. How well did the group members listen to each other?
  6. Were there recognized leaders within the group?
  7. How did the group interact with this facilitator?
  8. Were there differences between male and female participation?

Sharing what one observes with the board president and the board provides a layer of information that often is invisible, especially in the moment, that deeply impacts outcomes. It gives the board the opportunity to choose a better way of working, leading both to better decisions and more satisfying service for members.

In the same article, Lakey offers a twist to what I would have considered to be part of a process-watching role: a "vibes watcher" that pays particular attention to the non-verbals in the room:

  • Body languages are people yawning/ dozing, sagging, fidgeting, leaving?
  • Facial expressions; are people alert or "not there", looking upset, staring off into space?
  • Side conversations: are they distracting to the facilitator or to the group?
  • People interrupting each other.

Lakey acknowledges the interpretive challenge that comes with observing non-verbal behavior: we can't know for sure whether our read is accurate. But watching, noting and asking gives us a chance to raise the questions that can address issues that members may not be able (or willing) to articulate in without encouragement. It reduces the risk that those underlying issues will fester and impede group deliberations.

I remain convinced that many of our bigger board challenges lie not in the content of the work, but in the interpersonal quirks and conflicts that emerge when people gather. (See my "Board Dynamics" page for other posts on this topic.) What is your reaction to the possibility of creating a process watcher? What might that person help  you identify and address in a timely manner? What potential push back might you encounter if you proposed it? Is it worth considering?


Nancy Iannone said...

Brilliant! Having each board member take a turn with prompts to look for is engaging and informative.

I can certainly see the need for agreed upon guidelines for the role, including sharing the feedback. That comes back to board culture and whether the environment is a safe space for learning and growth.

Debra Beck, EdD said...

I can anticipate that this may be a bit of a stretch for some, Nancy. But the potential benefit of both feedback provided and increased awareness for individual members who have a chance to serve in, and learn from, that role wold be huge. I agree that essential to success would be up-front agreement on expectations - including what to observe, how to share, etc.

Nancy Iannone said...

It would be a stretch, but well worth the effort. Encouraging boards to stretch is one of the things I like best about your blog.

Being encouraged, or in some cases challenged, to explore new ways of being as a board, is hopefully a first step to real growth.