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Listening to Understand in Board Discussions

governance transition Apr 13, 2023

- By Sophie Pinkoski

As chair of a board, it’s tempting to come into meetings as a problem solver, but it’s important to take a step back and remember that decision-making in the boardroom is a collaborative effort.

When a board is truly inclusive, everyone is has the opportunity to share their perspective and thus, create a more thorough and effective decision-making process.

Board inclusivity doesn’t happen overnight when you add diverse directors to your board. “Achieving diversity and inclusion is not something that you do just once; you achieve; it’s a continuous journey,” notes Judy Hsu, CEO of Singapore and ASEAN Markets at Standard Chartered plc. Nurturing inclusive board culture is an ongoing process that takes careful monitoring and encouragement.

It’s the chair’s responsibility not to come into meetings with all the answers to board issues, but to foster an open, candid environment where everyone feels comfortable and does speak up.

In essence, any good board needs psychological safety to allow for that sense of trust and vulnerability to happen during meetings. “A shared belief that people will not be rejected or embarrassed for speaking up with their ideas, questions, or concerns may hold the key to unlocking benefits of diversity,” explains author of The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmonson. This can be a challenge when there are more outgoing, opinionated voices at the table who might drown others out. It’s the chair’s job to manage a balanced conversation between directors during meetings to ensure that no one’s perspective is left out.

But how can those balanced board conversations be achieved?

Reviewing the agenda with a lens of inclusivity before meetings –– It’s important to prepare decision and discussion items to ensure each is clearly laid out, actionable, and realistic in terms of what the board can complete with quality discussions within the allotted meeting time. Adding questions for consideration in the board package is helpful for board members who contribute best when they can prepare their thoughts ahead of the meeting. It also provides an opportunity for board members to share their perspectives in advance of the meeting.

Active listening –– Every director joining a board meeting should do so with the intention to focus on the discussion, but the chair is also expected to listen to facilitate the sharing of everyone’s perspectives. Active listening is about listening to understand, rather than to respond or argue an opposing point. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “there is a difference between truly listening and waiting your turn to talk”.

Keeping an open mind toward fellow board members’ perspectives means paying attention to what they have to say.

Be patient as each board member fully explains their perspective and only interrupt to ask for clarification. When they are finished speaking, repeat their point if there is a risk that you did not understand correctly. Then, ask open-ended questions to stimulate further discussion on the topic from the rest of the board.

Circling back when someone’s perspective is ignored –– Oftentimes, discussions can move so quickly, not everyone’s contributions are given the attention they deserve. When the conversation moves on without someone’s point being properly acknowledged, the board can’t fully appreciate the relevance or importance of the thought. What’s more, it takes courage, sharing an alternative perspective that might challenge the status quo.

It’s important to stand up for these voices to ensure their point of view isn’t being brushed aside in favour of other ideas.

It’s helpful to solicit thoughts from directors holding the opposite perspective from the group to approach issues from multiple angles. Simply expressing, “I’d like to hear from so and so on this” or “I’d like to understand more about this particular perspective” is enough to bring the board’s attention back to the previously unheard board member’s original thought. “Before we vote on this, I would find it helpful to go around the table and hear everyone’s perspective” is also a good way to ensure everyone’s voice is being taken into account for each discussion item.

 A great board leader creates an environment that allows its directors to shine.

The board exists to make the best decisions for the organization. This takes time and listening to alternative perspectives to come to a consensus.

The chair’s role in this is to encourage dynamic discussions, which involves knowing when to let conversations flow, stimulating discussion where needed, and encouraging certain individuals to contribute their unique perspectives to certain issues.

Maintaining the talking to listening ratio amongst each board member is key to ensuring a balanced discussion. Maintaining inclusive board meetings is a continuous process, but well worth the ongoing hard work. After all, in the words of Helen Keller, “alone, we can do little; together, we can do so much”. Everyone deserves to have their voice heard during meetings in order to come to the best decisions for your organization.

Further Reading

Driving Diversity and Inclusion – The Role for Chairs and CEOs, Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance

Bringing Action to Numbers: Turning Diverse Boards into Inclusive Ones, EgonZehnder

Active Listening Skills, Psychology Today

How to Engage Audiences With Different Perspectives, American Society for Microbiology

Is Your Board Inclusive – Or Just Diverse?, Harvard Business Review

How to Deal With Different Perspectives on Your Board, LinkedIn

Board Inclusion – Are Your Members Comfortable Speaking Up?, Aprio

How to Be a Good Board Chair, Harvard Business Review

The Six Signature Traits of inclusive Leadership, Deloitte

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