Board Dynamics in a Virtual World

As I attend more and more virtual board meetings, I can’t help wondering about the effect on board dynamics.

In brief, board dynamics refers to the way that individual board directors interact with each other. You can see a board’s dynamics through the language that directors use, how they constructively challenge and debate each other, and the way they make decisions.

When I think about board dynamics, it reminds me that a board of directors is a group of human beings, not just a collection of rules and processes. To quote a recent article by Meena Thuraisingham in the Australian Institute of Company Directors magazine,

“The process of governing does not occur in a social vacuum.”

Every board takes on the collective personality of its members. This plays out in the behaviors, routines and social norms that the board develops. It contributes to the expectations – whether stated or unstated – that every board member tries to understand and live up to in order to fit in. Consciously or unconsciously, it affects how directors think and act, what they are willing to say and how they say it.

 

Why do board dynamics matter?

There is a lot of research out there demonstrating that the quality of board members’ interaction is crucial to board effectiveness.

But let’s face it, we didn’t really need the research to tell us that, did we? If you have participated in both functional and dysfunctional boards, as I have, then you already know the difference that board dynamics can make.

Positive board dynamics contribute to director engagement, meaningful discussion, good decisions and positive outcomes. All of which translates to a higher level of satisfaction for directors like you and me.

 

What do positive board dynamics look like?

Board dynamics are linked to culture. A board with positive dynamics looks more like a high-performing team than a collection of random individuals. It is characterized by:

  • Trust, openness and collegiality.
  • Directors who view each other as valued colleagues (not necessarily as friends).
  • A willingness to speak up and engage in constructive conflict.
  • Respectful interactions between board and management.
  • Rich and challenging discussions.
  • Lack of rivalries and disputes.
  • Equal participation among board members.

 

What challenges does meeting virtually create?

Board dynamics are a product of the interpersonal relationships among individual board members. Think about a recent (in-person) board interaction, such as a spirited discussion, that you were a part of. No doubt, some directors dominated the conversation while others stayed relatively quiet. A good Board Chair takes note of this imbalance, watches for visual cues such as facial expressions and body language, and encourages quiet directors to speak up and participate in the discussion. This enhances the quality of the board’s decision, of course, but it also helps to strengthen the social norm where everyone is expected to speak up and share their views.

Virtual collaboration requires that everyone be mentally present and engaged.

Think also about what occurred before and after the meeting, during breaks, or maybe at lunch or dinner. Everyone dropped the formality of their board personas and engaged as equals talking about subjects of common interest – sports, entertainment, travel, or even just the weather. These informal moments, repeated over time, help to lower barriers and cement feelings of trust.

When meetings become virtual, a great deal of this kind of interaction is lost. Board dynamics can’t help but be affected.

Studies of virtual meetings have found the following challenges:

  • Meeting virtually is a learned behavior, but most board directors have little or no experience working virtually.
  • There is no opportunity to socialize, share meals, and get to know one another. As a result, the group has trouble developing trust.
  • There is a tendency to shy away from controversial topics “until we can meet in person” because it can be more difficult to deal with conflict virtually.
  • It can be hard for the Board Chair to facilitate equal participation in the absence of visual cues.
  • Participants find their attention wanders and their tolerance for long meetings is diminished.
  • Everything takes longer virtually as the meeting veers between awkward silences and everyone speaking at once.

 

How can a savvy director meet those challenges?

When a board has a long history of meeting in person, and the board culture and board dynamics are already firmly in place, a few virtual meetings are not going to change this. But if you are a new director joining that board, the virtual board room is your reality, and it can be quite difficult to appreciate and fit into the subtleties of the board’s interrelationships.

As an individual director, you can’t totally change the board’s dynamics, but you can control your own reactions and the part you play in the board’s culture. The importance of some of these key behaviors is amplified in a virtual setting.

  • Virtual meetings are far more effective when people can see each other’s facial expressions and body language. Sit close to your camera to help re-create the intimacy of an in-person meeting. Position your camera so that it captures your face head-on, as opposed to the view from below looking up your nostrils. Experiment with your camera placement to make sure your hand gestures are visible.
  • When you are listening, maintain an engaged and attentive expression. Don’t be distracted by what is going on around you in the real world. And try to avoid “resting bitch face” (yes, it’s a thing.) Pretend you are actually making eye contact with the faces on your screen.
  • When you speak, use the same range of tone of voice, facial expressions, and hand gestures that you would use in person. These visual cues help establish empathy and trust.
  • Participate fully in any ice breaker or check-in exercises that take place, no matter how corny. After all, these indicate that your board understands the constraints of the situation and is trying to deal with them proactively.
  • Don’t shy away from controversial topics. Ask yourself whether you would be speaking up in person. If the answer is yes, then find a way to do so at the virtual meeting. Your effort will help others to contribute as well.
  • Suggest a de-brief afterwards. What worked? What didn’t? At the very least, take a few minutes after the meeting to do a self-assessment. How did you do? What would you like to do differently next time?
  • When get-togethers are permitted again, suggest that the board assemble in person from time-to-time to facilitate positive board dynamics.

 

Your takeaways:

  • Positive board dynamics increase board effectiveness through constructive debate and better decision-making.
  • Virtual board meetings make developing positive board dynamics more of a challenge.
  • As an individual director, you can contribute to positive board dynamics thorough your own behavior.

Thank you.
Scott

Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.

 

Share Your Insight: What ideas do you have to help overcome the challenges of virtual board meetings?

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