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Does Your Board Listen?

“It’s as simple as this. When people don’t …feel like they’ve been listened to, they won’t really get on board.”

―Patrick Lencioni,
The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable

Do people on your board really listen to each other? And does everyone feel listened to or is there anyone on your board that doesn’t really get heard? Boards have some of the same needs as teams as you will see in this example.

Assessing The Team

We were asked to work with a board of a health charity. It was the time in the planning cycle for the board to think about risks, assess the size and probability of things going wrong and to propose mitigation strategies.

In terms of teamwork, in this board, they had two issues: the first issue was that they had an experienced board member whose style was like a steam-roller, and the second issue was that they had no organized way to integrate a new board member, nor any awareness of its importance.  They had Susan (the steam-roller), who thought that she really knew all of what was going on and who spoke up the most often in the board meetings. She argued with anyone who disagreed with her and many on the board got into the habit of just letting her have her way because it took so much energy to tangle with her.

Janet was the new member of the board. She had come to the board role with really good experience in another sector and was feeling her way in this one. Consequently she hung back trying to get a handle on the board’s work. She hadn’t really sufficiently developed her relationships and knowledge of the health sector to feel comfortable voicing her unease with Susan’s solution.

The Problem

One day, a problem arose. A client had come forward to complain about one of the doctors who had been volunteering in the charity’s medical clinic. This client had accused the doctor of malpractice. The doctor has been associated with the charity for fifteen years and was someone Susan admired very much. Susan was proposing that the board didn’t have to think do anything about this. She vouched for the doctor.

Janet wasn’t at all sure that Susan’s approach was the right approach. What if the client was right? What if it turned out this was just the first of many complaints that surfaced and it becamse known that the board had decided to do nothing? She was convinced that Susan was overlooking a real risk to the organization. She asked questions about the review process undertaken when complaints like this were received. Who was involved? A team of medical staff from the clinic? Human Resources? The board’s errors and omissions insurance advisor? She shared some of her experience from a different board on which she had served. None of the board members seemed to want to go against Susan however and the board voted to do nothing. Janet informed the board that this meant that she would have to step down.

The Outcome

It appeared later, that Janet had been right. This was the first of a number of complaints and the doctor, ultimately, was forced to resign. When this came to the courts, the judge was very critical of the charity’s board when it became clear that the board had no normal process of review of complaints and that it did not live up to its duty of care to the charity’s clients.

An ideal situation for a board should have active participation, not passive support for decisions it takes.

Common Board Situations

What about your board? Have you had a similar situation? Do board members listen to each other? Do they draw out and encourage the quieter team members to contribute their ideas? Do you as chair of the board, defer to your louder board members? Do you have a process of review of complaints that come to you about staff and volunteers?

Five quick tips to help alleviate this sort of situation:

  1. Devil’s Advocate: When you have someone who is strongly advocating and not listening, invite someone else to play devil’s advocate. It will get another perspective to be represented in the room.
  2. The Power of Fresh Thinking: Never discard a new board member’s ideas without exploring them thoroughly in a non-judgemental fashion. Inquire into the basis for their point of view. They may in fact be seeing things that you are not because they are new.
  3. Control the Air Time: A good chair insists that all board members have equal voice time and not give a steam-roller free reign.
  4. Encourage the Quiet Ones: If you haven’t heard from someone in the meeting for a while, ask them explicitly for their point of view.
  5. Consider Stepping Down from the Chair:If the chair is passionate about the issue under debate, a smart chair might consider appointing someone else to chair the meeting for this item.

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