Inclusive Boards Drive EngagementMar 29, 2023
- By Sophie Pinkoski
The most effective boards are ones that understand how each individual adds value to discussions and the decision making process. When board members have a strong sense of their individual and collective impact upon the organization and community at large, they are more eager to engage in meetings. A strong chair is able to help define these key aspects, alongside the board’s purpose, values, and expectations for their directors. They can also effectively impress upon the importance of inclusive board meetings, where everyone is free to share their ideas and opinions.
Giving everyone an equal opportunity to make meaningful contributions during meetings strengthens the board’s oversight, insight, and foresight capacities.
In less inclusive meetings, board members run the risk of disengaging. Here are common causes of board member disengagement that inclusion combats:
Groupthink – Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink”, defining it as “when [board] members’ striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action”.
The high pressure to keep a cohesive perspective within the board during deliberations prevents individuals from speaking out when they have an opinion that challenges the status quo.
Groupthink is often a root cause of other unhealthy board habits, such as…
Low-effort norms – When the board’s role and expectations are not clearly defined, directors may put minimum effort into their involvement, introducing unspoken norms for the amount of work expected amongst themselves. This can lead to an uneven balance of participation in meetings and preparation, wherein only a few directors do most of the work. This surface-level contribution often means items are not discussed in meaningful ways or get pushed back to a later meeting.
Talking around issues like this is detrimental to the board’s contribution, where no timely decisions can be made, or items are not properly acted upon.
Imbalanced board dynamics can also be a result of…
Hierarchical meetings – When the board chair doesn’t prioritize an egalitarian meeting structure, a hierarchical approach often happens instead, wherein the chair’s or an outspoken board director's opinion is disproportionately valued. In this situation, the chair may steer the direction of the decision-making process, rather than encouraging collaborative discussions amongst the board. Instead, these conversations are often short, especially when a chair has come into the meeting with a particular decision already in mind.
Narrow framing and biases – One of the most difficult aspects to combat in the boardroom is personal biases. These influence automatic assumptions made about fellow board members and their differing perspectives. Confirmation bias, for instance, only allows someone to embrace information that supports what they already believe, rejecting any information to the contrary.
This perspective excludes board members with diverse experience and perspectives as outsiders.
This can pressure individuals with alternative perspectives to keep their thoughts to themselves, creating a false unanimity that supposes everyone is in agreement on decisions, despite individuals’ unspoken reservations. Opening up the board discussion to all voices gives people the chance to ask probing questions and review data to dispel confirmation biases and any preconceived notions.
When all voices are invited to speak out in the boardroom, they are able to challenge one another to consider discussion items in new ways. Open, inclusive conversations broaden the board’s perspectives and prevents complacency during meetings.
A great chair encourages equal participation among their board members to keep them engaged in and passionate about the work they believe in.
Every board member wants to know that they’re making a difference. Having their voice not only heard, but respected in the boardroom goes a long way toward creating that impact.
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