If you find your board work a less than enjoyable experience, and board meetings boring and frustrating, maybe you’re part of a dysfunctional board.
When it comes to a board of directors, dysfunction tends to arise from two broad areas – process and people. You’re probably not surprised that people-centered dysfunction is way more frustrating to experience, and way trickier to fix, than the process-centered kind. That’s what happens when you throw human nature into the mix!
Still, there are ways of fixing even people-centered board dysfunction if you have the patience and the will power.
Let’s explore the people side of board dysfunction. Where does it stem from? And how can you address it?
In our last Savvy Director blog, Fixing a Dysfunctional Board, we discussed the four domains of board dysfunction described by Jeff Arnold in his article How to Spot the Top Indicators of Board of Directors’ Dysfunction. We focused on the two process-centered domains – structural and strategic - and how to address them.
In today’s blog, we’ll explore the two domains of people-centered dysfunction - individual (how individual directors show up and contribute) and cultural (how the board works as a team.) Let’s keep in mind that the four domains are interwoven – each one affects the others and solving an issue in one can go a long way to solving the rest.
The individual domain is all about the behavior of individual directors. In this area, indicators of a healthy board include directors who do the right thing for the right reasons, act in the organization’s best interests, disclose conflicts of interest, support board decisions even if they disagree, and follow through on commitments.
Using DirectorPrep language, these are directors who practice The Six Habits of the Savvy Director. They build their governance skills, prepare for meetings, ask great questions, collaborate with others, think independently, and demonstrate courage.
Here are just a few symptoms of individual dysfunction on the board:
Director apathy. Spotty attendance, lack of preparation, and poor participation can be signals that a director can’t be bothered to contribute their fair share. This can be a problem in the non-profit sector, where directors sometimes take their board role less seriously than a corporate board position.
Destructive conflict. A certain amount of conflict on a board is not only inevitable, but desirable. Effective boards are comfortable with the tension that goes along with genuine differences of opinion. But acrimonious disputes, personal attacks, and escalating disagreements can become destructive.
Pet projects. It’s common for a director to have a special interest in certain aspects of the organization, and less so in others. That’s fine, but if they advocate for their pet projects and downplay others that compete for resources, it can disrupt the board’s priority-setting.
Tolerating misbehavior. Sometimes a director engages in unprofessional or unethical conduct like berating staff, sharing confidential information, or not acting in the organization’s best interests. If the board turns a blind eye, it normalizes misbehavior and makes it more likely to recur.
In the cultural domain, a healthy board is like a high-functioning team. The signs include thoughtful deliberation of issues, balanced discussions, sound decisions, buy-in to the board’s decisions, director engagement, and mutual trust.
Most boards exhibit some degree of cultural dysfunction. That’s just human nature at work. But when it becomes rampant, there’s cause for concern.
Absence of trust. When board directors don’t trust each other, they hesitate to ask for help, hold grudges, waste time on board politics, and dread meetings. There might be a clique where critical discussions occur and important decisions are made, leaving other directors out in the cold. Read our blog Trust and The Savvy Director on this topic.
Fear of conﬂict. Trying to avoid conflict results in boring meetings where nothing is spontaneous - everything is scripted to ignore controversial topics and limit debate. The board is prone to Groupthink, where consensus is reached prematurely. Asking hard questions is met with disapproval, skepticism is discouraged, and directors keep their thoughts to themselves. Our blog Banish Groupthink from the Boardroom has more on this topic.
Lack of commitment. If everyone’s not on the same page it creates confusion about direction, messes up priorities, and causes missed opportunities. Meetings are unproductive because the board argues about trivial issues and wanders into random topics. The board rarely makes decisions, and when it does, they’re revisited again and again, or they’re inconsistent.
Avoidance of accountability. On an effective board, directors hold each other accountable. Without accountability, there’s resentment among board members, missed deadlines, and deliverables not acted on. Since poor performers aren’t held to account, there’s no pressure to improve and problems aren’t identified until it’s too late.
Inattention to results. When the board focuses on outputs instead of outcomes, and directors focus on their own careers and individual goals, the board will be easily distracted, the organization will fail to thrive, and more results-oriented directors will abandon the board.
If things are not going well on your board, there may be dysfunction in either the individual or cultural domains. Keep in mind, there might be dysfunction in both - one or two troublesome board members can seriously disrupt the group dynamics.
Making improvements in one domain can easily spill into the others. Addressing process-centered dysfunction also has a positive impact on the people side. For instance, fixing issues with board size or structure helps improve trust, board evaluations serve to improve accountability, board retreats help get everyone on the same page, and better meeting agendas can re-focus the board’s attention on results.
Much of the responsibility for the people side of board function falls to the board chair. It’s not necessarily one of the chair’s easier tasks, so if you’re thinking about the chair role, that’s something to consider. Read our blog So You Want To Be The Board Chair for more.
Here are some actions the board chair could take to address dysfunction:
Let’s look at some additional actions a board might consider.
What can you do as an individual director? First, make sure you’re not the Bad Apple in the bunch. Be kind, exercise patience, and work on your self-awareness. A self-evaluation tool can help you reflect on your own performance and find how to contribute more to your board. DirectorPrep’s Individual Director Self-Evaluation is a tool to consider – it’s designed around the Savvy Director framework.
Sitting on the Governance Committee will give you the opportunity to make a pitch for the ideas set out in this blog and the previous one. With the Committee behind it, there’s a better chance the full board will endorse the suggestion. Finally, if a fellow director suggests something to address the people side of board dysfunction, add your support.
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 directors prepare for their board role.
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