Is Your Board Bored?

Your board of directors holds your organization’s future in its hands—but its members may be too dysfunctional to make effective decisions. The path to rebuilding starts here.

By Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

No one can deny that an organization’s product, processes, competitive advantage, and recent history greatly influence its fate. Ditto the CEO, whose ability, motivation, and personality can go a long way toward determining the company’s success or failure. We don’t often say the same thing about the other people at the top-the board of directors, but we should.

All boards, of course, are different. Some are unwisely large (the classic rule of thumb is seven members, plus or minus two, which prevents a split). Some are deeply homogenous (stale, frail, pale, and male). Some seem more competent than others. Some have the support of a good mix of non-ex officios.

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But board watchers will point to six common problems that seem to bother most boards. And they are as follows:

Problem #1: Bloated Membership

Power, prestige, and money are the drivers to get on the board, and many senior executives see it as the pinnacle of success. The problem? A large voting body can inevitably lead to factions. There needs to be a clear, open, business-case rationale for who should be appointed to the board.

Problem #2: Naked Ambition

A board spot is good, but a lesser senior sport may be better. Executives who make the board are deeply ambitious, confident, and clever, and they often spend more effort plotting their own success than that of the company.

Problem #3: Conspiracy of Silence

Observers often note the number of issues that are left unspoken. Boards will skip topics for a variety of reasons, including selective deafness, curious taboos, and the reluctance to discuss feelings and emotions.

Problem #4: Resisting Centrifugal Forces

Boards often consist of too many people doing their own thing and fighting for resources for their particular part of the company. They look down the organization, rather than across or up.

Problem #5: Ambiguity of Roles

When you can’t agree who is responsible for what-and, more importantly, when you can’t accept those responsibilities, you lose focus. As a result, boards have trouble agreeing on team processes and prioritizing issues.

Problem #6: Resisting Help

This one’s simple: If you refuse to admit your own issues and seek outside professional help, your team can never be functional.

Of course, board members didn’t just start behaving this way once they reached the top. They learned plenty of bad habits on their climb. In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, consultant and speaker Patrick Lencioni outlines the pitfalls that all business groups face, regardless of size.

Dysfunction #1: Absence of Trust

Team members’ fear of being vulnerable with one another prevents them from building trust. As a result, these teams conceal mistakes and weaknesses and actively avoid giving constructive feedback. If you can trust your partners, you’ll be better able to tap into their skills and expertise.

Dysfunction #2: Fear of Conflict

Sure, conflict can lead to office politics, personal attacks, and reluctance to confront controversial topics. But the desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the right kind of conflict: constructive, passionate debate. All great teams need it in order to grow, Lencioni says.

Dysfunction #3: Lack of Commitment

Failing to commit or buy into a goal or direction leads to ambiguity about the future and a fear of failure. Without commitment, team members achieve alignment, but not agreement.

Dysfunction #4: Avoidance of Accountability

The need to steer clear of interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding each other accountable. This creates resentment, along with very different standards of performance. Accountable teams, meanwhile, identify problems quickly and respect one another.

Dysfunction #5: Inattention to Results

The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the team’s focus on collective success. If everyone believes in the team’s ability, it’s easier to achieve an overarching goal.

But there’s a sixth dysfunction that Lencioni doesn’t mention, and it’s arguably even more damaging to teams-and boards in particular-than the rest: 

Dysfunction #6: Groupthink

When boards develop a very cohesive, internally consistent set of roles and norms, they sometimes become concerned about not disrupting the group’s harmony.

Board morale, happiness, and contentment seem more important than the task that the group has been forced to undertake: good decision-making. The more pressure that teams put on themselves to make uniform, acceptable decisions, the less able they are to make actual, effective decisions.

Group members have more faith in their collective decisions than their personal ideas, and as a result, they may suspend their own critical thinking in favor of conforming to the team. When you’re loyal to your teammates, you may ignore information from other sources if it challenges the group’s decisions, even if those decisions are irrational or immoral.

The potential consequences of groupthink include considering fewer alternatives when solving problems, brushing off outside experts who could make valuable contributions, and ignoring any facts and risks that negatively affect group morale.

So how can teams get out of their own heads? Truth is, reducing groupthink is much more difficult than preventing it in the first place, because groups engaging in it seldom realize they’re doing so. But it’s not a hopeless case—it just starts with leaders encouraging team members to evaluate ideas more openly and critically. From there, they should:

1. Discuss plans with disinterested outsiders to obtain reactions. Boards need to use expert advisers to redesign the decision-making process. Assign a devil’s advocate role to one group member, so that ideas are always being challenged.

2. Promote open inquiry. Groupthink arises in response to people’s reluctance to rock the boat. Leaders must encourage members to be skeptical of all solutions and avoid reaching premature agreements.

3. Use subgroups. Base all decisions on the recommendations of at least two groups. If these groups disagree, the spirited discussion of their differences is likely to raise important issues.

4. Admit shortcomings. When you’re under the influence of groupthink, you feel confident you’re doing the right thing, which discourages you from considering contrary information. To avoid this illusion, ask others to point out their misgivings and hesitations about the group’s decisions, and encourage everyone to believe that doubt, not certainty, is perfectly acceptable.

5. Hold second-chance meetings. Before implementing any decision, hold a meeting in which group members can express their doubts and propose new ideas. As people get tired of working on problems, they may hastily reach agreement on a solution. A second-chance meeting is a way to see if that solution still seems as good after sleeping on it.

Almost every board member will tell you they’ve been parts of dysfunctional groups, and they’ve let some issues influence them to make bad decisions. While some boards take the steps to be better, the dysfunctional groups are often the least likely to call for it. Don’t let pride, stubbornness, or fear get in the way of thinking differently. The future of your organization may depends on it.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is an organizational and applied psychologist, management expert, and professor of psychology at University College London. In addition to his academic roles, he has been a consultant to over 30 major international companies, with particular interests in top team development and performance management systems.