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Patience in the Boardroom

Mar 06, 2022

“Patience is the art of concealing your impatience.” – Guy Kawasaki, American marketing specialist

When we asked our Savvy Director readers, “What boardroom skills do you want to have help with?” a number of you responded with variations on the themes of how to exercise more patience, how to be more tolerant, and – to be brutally direct – how not to get frustrated with other directors.

I get it. Sometimes, after an unsatisfying board meeting, I’ve thought to myself, “Board work would be great if it weren’t for all the other people in the room!”

It’s okay to indulge that secret thought for a moment or two. But the reality is that board work is a group activity – that’s the nature of the beast. If we don’t learn to channel those frustrations into something more positive and productive, the road to being a Savvy Director is going to be a rough one.

There are two reasons I particularly like our readers’ responses to the skills question. The first is the recognition that the problem is not really about the other directors, it’s about their own response. In the boardroom, as elsewhere in life, it’s often true that the only thing we can control is our reaction to things. This hit home for me just the other day as I was waiting endlessly in line just to order a simple cup of coffee!

The second reason I like our readers’ response is their tacit recognition that patience is not just an innate quality that some people are blessed with and others aren’t. Patience is a skill that we all can (and should) learn. Like any other acquired skill, it can be developed and strengthened through regular practice.

The skill of patience will become even more valuable in the future in the face of challenges like diversity, equity, and inclusion. That’s because, as boards become more diverse and inclusive, we’re all likely to be exposed to new and different ways of thinking, speaking, and dealing with issues. Much as we all say we value diversity of thought – and we do, in theory – listening to and respecting diverse viewpoints requires more tolerance and patience than we might be used to as part of a more homogeneous board.

 

Disruptive or Destructive?

Before getting into the topic of patience, let’s take a moment to dwell on the behavior that causes our readers so much frustration in the first place.

It’s vitally important to distinguish between disruptive behavior and destructive behavior. I first wrote about this in the Savvy Director Blog The Bad Apple. If you missed that one, it would be a good idea to read it now.

In a nutshell, destructive behavior is more than just annoying or irritating. It’s abusive, toxic, divisive, or even unethical. It causes outright dissension on the board and potentially damages its reputation. There are only a few ways of dealing with destructive behavior, and exercising patience is not one of them. Trying to exercise patience in the face of destructive behavior is counter-productive. It has to be dealt with head on, usually by the board chair.

Disruptive behavior, on the other hand, is difficult, distracting and – yes – frustrating. Unlike destructive behavior, directors tend to put up with it because, despite their annoying habits, these frustrating directors still consistently add value to the work of the board. This kind of disruptive behavior is tiresome, but it doesn’t prevent the board from getting its work done.

The list of potentially disruptive behaviors is a long one. As a sample, many of us get frustrated by fellow board members who:

  • arrive at meetings totally unprepared.
  • drone on and on, taking forever to get to the point.
  • delve into trivial details.
  • take the discussion off track.
  • talk incessantly about themselves.
  • dominate the conversation.
  • distort what others say.
  • shoot down innovative ideas.
  • resurrect items that have already been dealt with.
  • take offence when disagreed with.
  • criticize everything and everyone.
  • can’t seem to see the big picture.

You’re wondering why somebody – like the board chair - doesn’t do something about these annoying habits. Beyond the fact that it’s a difficult conversation to have, let’s acknowledge that many disruptive behaviors are deeply ingrained. They are habits that are difficult – if not impossible - to break, even if someone asks you to change. It’s like hoping your spouse will change because you asked them to. How does that usually work out?

Be honest now. Haven’t you been guilty of a few of these behaviors on occasion? I know I have. That’s one reason to show a degree of tolerance for others – you’d like your own (rare) lapses to be tolerated in turn, wouldn’t you?

 

Understanding Impatience

Impatience has its roots in frustration. It’s the outward expression of an internal dialogue about how the world should work. Each of us has an impression of how things are “supposed to be." When life doesn’t unfold that way, we can find it difficult to accept, even stressful.

In a boardroom context, we have expectations of how the meeting is supposed to unfold. That ideal scenario might include the pearls of wisdom that we intend to share with our fellow directors, but it certainly does not include disruptive behavior.

In reality, a typical meeting might unfold quite differently. Maybe one director hasn’t bothered to crack open the board book. Another might take the discussion off track, and someone else might want to question every line item in the expense report. You get the picture.

You start to feel impatient. What does that look like? Physical signs can include shallow breathing, muscle tension, hand clenching, or foot jiggling.

The meeting runs long. You start to feel trapped - irritable, angry, or anxious. Your train of thought gets derailed.

Is there a problem in feeling that way? Yes, there definitely is. Impatience can interfere with your ability to be an effective director.

For one thing, being impatient means you’ve stopped listening. Even if your fellow director just made a vitally important point, you wouldn’t know it if you’re dwelling on whatever is annoying you instead of paying attention.

“Why is patience so important? Because it makes us pay attention.” – Paulo Coelho, Brazilian lyricist and novelist

Impatience can lead to rushing into things, making snap decisions, and losing sight of the big picture. It becomes harder to make rational decisions. And if your impatience is visible to your fellow board members, they may start to see you as arrogant, insensitive, impulsive, and maybe even a poor decision maker.

On the other hand, being patient means that you're more likely to be viewed positively by other directors (not to mention your family and friends). And you'll be a more effective director - more focused and productive.

“When you’re patient, you’re calmer, so you’re able to keep persisting when it’s difficult and you’re not prey to goal disengagement. You’re able to know when to act and when to conserve energy.” - Sarah A. Schnitker, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience, Baylor University


Developing Patience

Personality plays a role in why some of us tend to respond to life’s delays and setbacks with more calm than others. And just because you tend to be patient in some situations doesn’t mean you’ll be patient in all. Maybe you can listen patiently to your friend’s relationship struggles, but then you get irked when you find a long line at the checkout counter.

Some people have more patience for family and loved ones, while others find strangers actually easier to be patient around. For some, the smaller the obstacle, the less the patience – and for others, the opposite is true.

Is it possible to be too patient? That depends on the situation. It helps to think about patience on a spectrum: In any given situation we respond with some amount of patience or a complete lack of it. Either we respond with patience (right in the middle of the spectrum), with a deficiency of patience (where we have lost the ability to be calm), or with too much patience (where we stay so calm we become disengaged from the situation.)

Where we want to be in the boardroom is right in the middle of the spectrum. We don’t want to be so calm and patient that we check out of the meeting.

But most of the time, our problem is too little patience, not too much. The good news is that even the most impatient people can improve patience. And there are ample opportunities to practice being patient, given the inevitable inconveniences, annoyances, and challenges that life delivers pretty much all the time.

“Patience is not a virtue. It is an achievement.” – Vera Nazarin, American author

When it comes to achieving patience, there are two aspects to consider - building our capacity to exercise patience and controlling our response in the moment.

 

Building Your Capacity for Patience

When you’re faced with a frustrating situation, the entire concept of patience grows more challenging. It can be difficult to improve patience in the moment. But there’s work you can do to be in a better position when that inevitable situation does arise.

You can work on developing your capacity to exercise patience through a variety of techniques such as meditation and mindfulness; learning to anticipate and expect frustrations in life; changing your internal dialogue about how things are “supposed to be”; and getting familiar with your personal triggers, such as specific people, words or situations.

For more on these techniques, check out some of the articles listed in the Resources section below.

 

Controlling Your Response in the Moment

When a frustrating situation arises and you start to feel impatient, it's important to get out of that frame of mind quickly. Here are some strategies to help you deal with impatience in the moment:

  • Accept the moment. Remember, you have a choice about how you react. You can choose to be patient, or not. It's up to you.
  • Pause and breathe. Allow yourself to feel frustrated for ten seconds, then take a few deep breaths. This will slow your heart rate, relax your body, and create emotional distance.
  • Relax your muscles. Impatience can cause you to tense up, so focus on relaxing your muscles, from your toes to the top of your head.
  • Act as if you feel patient. Acting patient often makes you feel more patient. So, force yourself to slow down. Control any telltale facial expressions and body language – like rolling your eyes or drumming your fingers.
  • Find humor. By finding the humor in the situation and your reaction to it, your brain and body chemistry changes and your frustration will rapidly fade.
  • Reframe how you think about the situation. That director is not droning on and on just to annoy you. They are trying to make a point that’s important to them. It’s not about you at all.
  • Practice empathy. Put yourself in the other person’s shoes and give them your full attention. It helps defuse your impatience.
  • Remember the big picture. Connect to your purpose for being there – the work of the board. It helps you elevate your emotions and see beyond challenges.
  • Take care of yourself. Impatience can just be a response to hunger, dehydration, or fatigue. A simple remedy might be a break, a snack, or a glass of water.

If you really want to work on improving your patience skills, try downloading this workbook from The THRIVE Center for Human Development - WAIT. A Training Guide to Understanding and Developing Patience. As you work your way through the guide, think specifically about the boardroom behavior and personalities that trigger your impatience.

 

Your takeaways:

  • There’s almost always someone on the board whom you’ll find irritating. But is their behavior disruptive or destructive?
  • Don’t think of patience as an innate virtue. Instead think of it as a muscle that can be strengthened or a skill that can be built.
  • Improving your patience skills won’t just help you be a better director. It can improve your life by lowering your stress and strengthening your relationships.
  • Work on enhancing your capacity to be patient. Then, when frustration appears, you’ll have a reservoir of strength you can call up in the moment.
  • Make a commitment to strengthen your ability to be patient in the boardroom. Work on it with help from WAIT. A Training Guide to Understanding and Developing Patience from The THRIVE Center for Human Development.

 

Resources:

 

Leave a comment below to get in on the conversation.

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.


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