Is everything sweetness and light between directors on your board? Does every meeting start with Kumbaya? Does it end with high fives and a director of the month award?
Or is your board racked with conflict? Riven with strife? Sleights, real and imagined, driving an undercurrent of scarcely concealed hostility dominated by a narcissistic bully?
Or is it like a run of the mill family with moving highs and hurtful lows underpinned by unspoken mutual regard, if not love?
Whatever emotional state your board is in, two or more directors will be in amber or red zones with each other on any given day.
Try plotting your board members on a relationship grid spreadsheet with the initials of each across the top row and the same initials down the left column and RAG – red, amber, green, – each relationship. Don’t forget to RAG your relationship with yourself.
The result will be a patchwork quilt of green, ambers and reds, but only from your perspective. I suspect that while each director’s grid would match on many apparent tensions, they would differ in surprising respects.
Tension, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Many years ago a chairman proudly told me that his board was so unified that they never had to vote on anything. Little did he know, as I did, that at least one of his directors was not happy, at all. I’m suspicious when votes are not taken. But I believe he genuinely felt that all was well. It’s just that he didn’t use a process to test his assumptions.
The business case for harmony on a board is so compelling it scarcely needs to be made. The stress reduction case, ditto. We also need boards to make good decisions which respect the environment, society and governance. These are more likely if forged in the crucible of harmony than one of conflict.
If you don’t want to pay eye-watering fees to consultants like me to facilitate improvements in your board’s behaviour, performance and harmony then there are plenty of tools out there to help you.
One useful model is The Blueprint developed by the charity Blueprint for Better Business – full disclosure, I’m an adviser to that charity. Blueprint’s Five Principles provide guidance for businesses and reflect the foundations needed for responsible business: honesty and fairness; good citizenship; responsible employment; guardians for future generations; and a purposeful business that delivers long-term sustainable performance.
One of the five principles addresses the board’s responsibility towards the people who work for and with the organisation. It urges the board to “protect[s] and nurture all who work for it to ensure people also learn, contribute and thrive.”
But how can this wonderful aspiration be achieved if, even if on the best of boards, relationships can swing, sometimes within one board meeting, from green, through amber and into red, occasionally accompanied by a red mist?
The answer lies in the combination of models like The Blueprint and behaviour change processes like nonviolent communication championed by, recently deceased, Marshall Rosenberg.
Rosenberg was a great exponent of a version of Feel/Need/Do to resolving differences.
Let’s imagine that you are going through a bit of an amber patch with one of your fellow directors, with occasional tinges of red. Here are three steps you could take combining Rosenberg and The Blueprint:
Step 1: Commit to spending a day alone together. I mean a full day. Start with a long session in a room 1-1 and then have a very long late lunch. Time, and in my opinion good food and drink, heal.
Step 2: Start your 1-1 setting out your stalls without interruption: my purpose, my understanding of the purpose of the organisation, my view of the strategy and behaviour required to achieve our objective. DON’T move to step three unless you are clear about the other person’s position. This step is about fact-finding. An argument is verboten in this step.
Step 3: Set out in turn without interruption how you FEEL about the other’s behaviour in relation to the purpose; what you NEED concerning that feeling and what you want to DO (usually ask) about it. Then work through your respective Feel/Need/Dos. If you approach this openly, something will shift. It may be a small change but small changes, in aggregate, have a big impact.
Rosenberg tells the story of the man who said he needed a divorce because he believed his wife was taking his hard work for granted. Rosenberg facilitated him and his wife to do a version of Feel/Need/Do. The outcome was that the husband needed appreciation and the wife time and intimacy. Neither needed a divorce.