In some respects, we need a set of basic understandings to streamline our interactions. If we stop and question how to proceed on every little thing, we'd never accomplish anything as a board. But not all assumptions that we carry into the room facilitate group work. Often, they stand in the way of our collective productivity and they blind us to the creative approaches and answers that our nonprofits need.
What kinds of assumptions do individual board members carry in their lives and in their governance work? While they are as individual as the people who hold them, adult educator Stephen Brookfield* describes three categories of assumptions, each of which can both facilitate board work and challenge when they are unchecked.
Prescriptive - "our beliefs about how we should behave." We have general notions about how adults communicate. Occasionally, we will run into an individual who doesn't interact "appropriately" or, at least, has less than stellar moments in a group setting. It's possible that we all are that individual at some point. In board settings (and in other groups), there is a culture - a "way we work" - that may not be articulated or evaluated. It's invisible to us, until it breaks down.
Some types questions that we may ask to uncover some of our prescriptive discussions:
- Are we collaborative?
- Do we expect newcomers to observe and not challenge, or to jump in?
- Are we okay with disagreements?
- How do we handle disagreement when it happens?
Often, especially with very experienced board members, conflicts arise when we bring together different notions about how we work and interact. We bring our previous board traditions and assumptions about how governance "works" into the room with us, not stopping to ask if this board works the same way.
Healthy groups stop periodically and ask: is the way we work functional? Healthy? Productive? What could be changed to enhance our effectiveness?
Paradigmatic - "deeply held beliefs of mental models that shape how we view the world." In this case, "deeply held" usually translates into "invisible" and "unchallenged." One important step to not only uncovering paradigmatic assumptions but harnessing them for good is to routinely take time to articulate and discuss organizational values:
- What are they?
- How are the demonstrate in our work?
- Where are the gaps between espoused values (what we say we value) and our work?
- How do we close those gaps?
It is important to regularly assess our work, in part, based on values congruence.
Causal - "allow us to explain and predict circumstances."What unspoken assumptions about how things work define our expectations - as a group and as individual board members? What challenges arise when those expectations remain unspoken? In the press of "getting things done," busy volunteer leaders often fail to stop and ask about the assumptions each of us are making as we deliberate and evaluate options that serve the nonprofit and community. Even if we "know" how things will work, it's still important to stop and ask "what if..." In my experience, this one can be both the greatest source of conflict when unchecked and the greatest source of generative governance when recognized and respected.
Brookfield offers a "framework for critical action." This process starts with "hunting assumptions," actively seeking out and bringing to collective consciousness those assumptions that shape how we think and act. In this process, we need to not only define but discuss how they inform and constrain our responses.
This is especially important in a governing body, where most of us are actively seeking and claiming to value diversity in all forms. Adding to the challenge is the action orientation of time-pressed volunteers wanting to simply make it through the agenda. Setting aside time to do this critical work becomes a "nuisance" or the dreaded "frills" instead of an integral part of creating a high-functioning leadership team.
Next in Brookfield's "critical action" frame is checking assumptions: holding them up against reality How do they stack up? How do they conflict? How do they facilitate vs. inhibit effective governance? The third step is seeing from different viewpoints: actively seeking other perspectives, discussing, and expanding our individual and collective thinking. (That, obviously, is where the value of our efforts to diversify our boards comes into play.) And, finally, is taking informed action.
What assumptions - about governance, about your mission, about your programs and community - drive your board's interactions and work? How do they facilitate the kind of effective leadership that you need to succeed? How do they limit your potential?
How can you bring them to light so that they can be (re)shaped and transform the governance of your organization?
* in Merriam and Bierma (2014). Adult Learning: Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 223-224.