Thinking Through Board Diversity

As associations grow and change, so do their boards. Keeping these three things in mind may help with the growing pains.

Associations can have growing pains, especially when they expand across the lines of states, countries, political ideals, genders, and diversity.

Boards develop according to and eventually reflect any shifts in the association’s membership—and they can face similar challenges, with board leadership finding themselves trying to maintain trust, transparency, and effective communication after these shifts. When working through such issues, remember these key takeaways from research.

Create Better Solutions Through Conflicting Ideas

Boards are episodic decision-making groups, as opposed to groups that need to construct effective decisions together daily, so their tasks are usually cognitive—setting processes, considering facts, and predicting outcomes. It’s important to remember during the decision-making process that cognitive conflict, or the discomfort one feels when confronted with new ideas, usually enhances performance.

The most effective boards focus on a task or issue and debate it until they arrive at a creative solution. Conflict management coach and author Mary Rafferty says, “The parties might argue and exchange views vigorously, yet there is two-way communication and openness to hearing each other. The goal is to find the best possible solution rather than to win the argument. Alternative perspectives are seen as valuable rather than threatening.”

Know You’re Attracted to Similarity

Differences in personality, gender, age, and tenure can all affect a board’s level of cognitive conflict. In their article “Diversity and Conflict in Boards of Directors,” Alan Walker, Silke Machold, and Pervaiz K. Ahmed write about the similarity-attraction effect, in which people with similar values, attitudes, and beliefs tend to be attracted to interactions with each other because they think and feel in similar ways. This creates positive feedback between both individuals during their interactions.

The similarity-attraction effect may be one reason we even join associations: We naturally seek people with similar values, attitudes, and beliefs, including those regarding our professional growth.

Pay Attention to the Types of Conflict

If board members have similar personality traits, their interactions in the boardroom are likely to be more engaged and positively charged, following the logic of the similarity-attraction effect. However, differences in personalities are more likely to cause misunderstandings of one another’s motivations and questions. These types of interactions are more likely to deteriorate.

Differentiating characteristics in boards that are directly observable seem to be those that promote the most reaction, assumption, and delineation. To maintain an effective board, especially during times of change, boards have to pay close attention to the type of conflicts they experience. Knowing the type of conflict will help boards work through those challenges.

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