This post first appeared in the Corridor Business Journal.
I’m a proud native Iowan. I appreciate our state’s topography, our first-in-the-nation caucus status and the friendliness with which we generally treat one another.
However, our natural politeness and discomfort with conflict or uncomfortable situations often limit our ability to have difficult conversations with other board members. Constructive conflict can promote new ideas, spur innovative solutions and motivate members to attend to their board work.
When board members, particularly board chairs, sidestep difficult conversations, the work of the board can devolve into the ineffectual and inefficient. It’s important that board members can have difficult conversations with one another, while maintaining a good working relationship. But how do we work past our concerns about offending one another?
Set and maintain expectations
Being clear about a board member’s responsibilities and outlining them in writing can help avoid misunderstandings that lead to conflicts and difficulties on the board.
Nonprofit boards should provide prospective members with a job description enumerating expectations, so they are clear even before someone joins the board. The job description should include expectations about meeting attendance, participation in fundraising activities (including guidelines regarding donations and event attendance) and any other expectations that the organization has of its board members. The job description should be reemphasized during board member orientation.
Once individuals have joined the board, it’s important to address any issues related to performance as they arise, rather than waiting until a situation becomes a problem. A friendly check-in phone call or email to an absent board member immediately following the board meeting is a good way to keep them up to date on the organization’s activities, let them know that they were missed, and show them that their participation on the board is important. This more proactive approach is often much easier than a discussion with a member who has missed several meetings.
It is the board’s responsibility to manage itself; therefore, the responsibility for addressing concerns about member behavior falls to other board members–typically the chair–rather than to the organization’s chief executive. With a clear job description, a chair’s conversation with his or her colleagues often can simply be a reminder of the expectations for board member behavior.
Avoiding conflict or difficult conversations can also impact the thoroughness with which members of a board or committee discuss and explore issues or new ideas. If board members are reluctant to ask questions or bring up different points of view during a discussion, the organization misses out on the benefits of having divergent viewpoints around the table, which can limit new ideas and innovative thinking.
The board chair or meeting facilitator must be comfortable with encouraging people to speak frankly and create a positive environment for doing so. A chair can use techniques such as asking members to play devil’s advocate regarding an issue or question at hand. Questions like “who would be against this idea?” and “what are the risks of moving forward/holding off on this?” can encourage meeting participants to express their concerns or questions about a topic.
Providing some time for members to list and discuss the pros and cons of an idea before a vote is taken can create a brainstorming atmosphere that helps members examine both sides of an issue. The chair may even conclude this kind of discussion with the question, “What more information do we need about this issue before we bring it to the floor for a vote?” This provides the opportunity for members who have questions to articulate them for the benefit of the rest of the group. Providing time for thorough discussion of a topic during the meetingbefore the meeting at which the vote is to be taken allows members time to thoughtfully consider a complex issue.
To be effective, board members must hold one another accountable for following through on responsibilities and tasks. Accountability does not need to be approached in a punitive or negative way, and it’s less likely to be viewed as such if concerns are approached in a consistent and timely manner.
With thoughtful planning, a board chair can develop key discussion questions and facilitate a difficult discussion in a manner that satisfies the most conflict-adverse members, while still enabling a thorough discussion that presents varying perspectives on a topic.
These approaches can help a board be effective while highlighting one of the best qualities of Iowans: polite effectiveness.