Monday, October 13, 2014

Messing around in the nonprofit boardroom: How we REALLY learn how toact, work

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How do nonprofit board members mess around, and how does that impact what happens when they gather to govern?

I couldn't help asking myself that question last week, while reading a new book on a totally unrelated topic. (Regular readers know how I love creative and occasionally insane stretches.) The author, Reynol Junco, was making a slightly smaller stretch of his own, drawing from research on "messing around" as a developmental process in which young people learn how to interact and work with their peers.

How do they (how did we) "communicate with their peer group, discuss difficult issues, share successes without seeming to brag," etc.? It's a process that happens over time, largely by "messing around." (p. 133)

Junco's stretch is to apply that process to young people's technology use: using social tools to learn how to become part of a larger community, often via trial and error. That leads to insights about "what is culturally appropriate and acceptable and what isn't, within the context of their peer group." They "test the waters" via their interaction.

I read and reflected on both notions within the intended context, wearing my "connected educator" hat. But thoughts about the potential application to what happens in our boardroom interactions and, specifically, how members learn "how things work here" planted themselves in my brain.

How do things work? We may have our policies and our values about boardroom roles and structures. But as they do in any room of two or more people, board members largely learn how things really work by observing and participating.  They learn via trial and error. They learn by stepping on toes and pointing out the uncomfortably obvious.

They learn by messing around.

The question I'm asking myself - and you - today is this: What does "messing around" look and sound like in our boardrooms? What are the types of actions, reactions and markers that members experience and absorb, whether or not they fit the official rules and espoused norms of the group?

The answers to these questions could be endless. But here are some of the examples that come to mind for me today.

Do members show up on time, and does it matter? Are there consequences for not arriving on time, prepared to work, or is it allowed to continue to happen? Something as simple as this not only sets expectations for timely arrival, but a tone that reinforces respect, or lack thereof, for the work undertaken when they arrive.

What do board conversations look like? Are they open and respectful, even when members disagree? Is there a lot of talk overlap, and does the overlap hurt or encourage creative discussions?

Are people allowed to sit quietly in meetings? That one may surprise, since I'm always pushing for full member engagement in discussions. But as one of those quieter members, I'm sensitive to how people like me are drawn to participate. Is their quiet treated as a functional way of respecting their thought processes? Or is it used as an excuse to avoid a contribution that may be contradictory or creating challenges to consensus?

How do we deal with disruption? What happens when that disruption is ultimately a different way of seeing and thinking? What happens when it is interpersonal in nature and interrupts the work we are doing? Is there a difference in how we treat the two scenarios? Do we deal with them at all?

What are the real consequences of not following through on commitments? How do we hold each other accountable for what living up to expectations set and promises made?

How are new members brought into board work? Are they drawn in immediately, in respectful and inviting ways? What happens when they do - for the new members themselves? For the rest of the board?

What happens when someone makes an "inappropriate" statement or asks an "inappropriate" question? What effect does it have on the discussion and tone? What defines "inappropriate" for our board? How do we know? Does the answer differ for different members?

What kinds of activities and actions help us feel like we're in this together? Are they all "business" and on task, or do they allow for informal connections?

What types of markers do we recognize to demonstrate - to us - that we're making a difference? How do we define and articulate that to each other? Do we stop long enough to acknowledge that all of the work we're doing matters? Can we see how it matters, even when it's not easy to see?

How do we have fun as a group? How is that fun treated? As a distraction? As something to save for the next retreat? As a normal mode of working and an integral part of effective leadership team culture?

This list is hardly definitive of how boards "mess around." A few may be off the mark, even with the stretch I'm making and asking you to make. But I hope it sparks some awareness of the kinds of actions and interactions that foster, challenge, or inhibit completely the kinds of group dynamics that shape what really happens when we gather to govern.

For more insights into health board dynamics and the challenges to effective board interactions, visit the "Board Dynamics" resources shared on this site.

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