How to present that damning internal report to your board 

Once upon a time, a client director commissioned a report by an external consultant on company operations which she then presented to board colleagues.

The report was excellently researched, mainly via extensive internal interviews. While the report contained some good news, it was mainly damning in respect of internal processes and conduct, especially institutionalised bullying.

Moreover, the perpetrators of the bullying were amongst the senior ranks and the process weaknesses exposed some of the directors. How should my client best present the report?

I advised that she opens with a restatement of the shared purpose of the business: before I present the outcome of the report I want to remind colleagues that we have agreed already that our shared overarching objective or purpose is X and our overarching strategy for achieving that purpose is Y.

Of course, it helps enormously if the board has taken the time to come to a shared view on X and Y.

Frequently this is not the case. And if you find yourself in this position I advise that you never present a damning report, or indeed any report, without first agreeing a shared PSB – Purpose (P) and Strategy (S) so that you can safely explore what Behaviour (B) is required to implement the strategy to achieve the shared purpose.

PSB, therefore, is the presentational tactic that will prevent your damning report from rupturing your board and will protect you from the anger of the listeners which invariably masks their shame and fear of being shamed.

And shaming is the mortal enemy of effective boards or indeed any team. One client, a racing yacht captain, has a zero-tolerance policy on his boat for shaming behaviour in respect of crew errors especially amongst male crew members whose internal self-loathing is fuelled by the tut-tuts of others with a disastrous impact on the race.

So your presentation is about fixing not pointing. It’s about behaviour, not people. Start with finding positive points in the report and genuinely celebrate their link to objectives. Do this slowly and not as a warm-up for a flogging. Tokenism will make things worse.

Don’t end the positive report with a “but”; end it with “and we should discuss how we can replicate this behaviour and celebrate those who model it”.

“However, given that we are trying to achieve X by implementing Y with behaviour Z, I feel alarmed that the report highlights significant weaknesses with processes A, B and C and I’m sure colleagues will agree that we cannot create an environment in which people will do their best work if we collude with bullying of any sort”.

The use of the words “I feel…” is part of the triad Feel, Need, Do which you can use effectively to protect yourself during the presentation from the accusation of pointing and not fixing.

In addition, the technique is very useful when dealing with the negative reaction of those who feel that the report appears to be fingering them. As the messenger, you can avoid being killed by using the following approach to the anger your message will generate.

Anger is a shallow emotion. Your job is to reveal, gently, the deeper feeling hidden by fury. Hurt and humiliation will not be far away. Try this:

“It sounds like the report has made you feel very angry. Tell me more”. Listen. Don’t interrupt, save to ask clarifying questions.

When you feel you have finished with your questions, dig deep and ask another. Often this last question is the one which will surface the need that goes with the feeling and what they want to do to meet their need, besides dismembering you.

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