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Board Culture

Maintain a Healthy Board Culture in Divisive Times

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The world is a polarized place right now, and keeping boardrooms productive and collegial can be harder against such a backdrop. Don’t let what’s going on outside your organization derail the important work your board needs to do.

Boardrooms often are a microcosm of the larger world, and today, the larger world is filled with political and social division and the lingering stages of a life-changing pandemic. The stress and animosity that this environment sometimes creates may intrude on the work your board is trying to accomplish.

To keep board culture healthy amid all this polarization, it’s important to communicate frequently, nurture authentic relationships, facilitate respectful disagreement, and tamp down small tensions before they turn into larger conflicts.

Torey Carter-Conneen, CAE, CEO of the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), said a healthy board culture is all about communication.

“There has to be communication and conversations with the board more frequently,” Carter-Conneen said. “I think that it’s imperative, because if you leave it to the board meetings alone to have conversations, it just lends itself for things to fester.”

ASLA holds quarterly town halls between board meetings. “I have a board of 60 people, so I break them up and do small-group conversations, across regions, across practice areas, just to get them connected to one another,” Carter-Conneen said.

Volunteer leaders also need to get to know each other. To help with that, many associations hold board retreats with ample time for storytelling.

A retreat for the board of the National Air Duct Cleaners Association “built a personal connection that allowed you to see that a person shares something in common with you or [helped you understand] why they can be difficult in the boardroom or maybe why they don’t speak up—whatever those personality traits are,” NADCA CEO Jodi Araujo said. “It greased the wheels a little bit, got everyone comfortable, and really led to a moment of bonding.”

“Disagreement leads to better results. It forces conversations that need to happen. Nine times out of 10, you come out with something better.” — Jodi Araujo, National Air Duct Cleaners Association

Disagreements Happen

Nurturing good relationships will help board members handle disagreement and conflict better. “Of course, there is going to be disagreement,” Araujo said. “Disagreement leads to better results. It forces conversations that need to happen. Nine times out of 10, you come out with something better.”

Because most boards have constant turnover as members roll off and new ones join, it’s important to have a strong onboarding process that lays out expectations for board member conduct and how to handle conflict.

“In the beginning part of my career, a lot of the onboarding strategies I saw were about, ‘Here’s the finances, here are the bylaws, here is the constitution,’” said Carter-Conneen. “We really didn’t get into what do you do when there is conflict? How do you raise an issue of concern? That’s the kind of training that we are introducing into our onboarding every year. All of our volunteer leaders need to have the same set of expectations about how we handle discourse and encourage positive, honest interaction.”

If discord does become a problem in meetings, Araujo says peer accountability can help, with members speaking to a fellow member who is violating norms. In some circumstances, Araujo offers pointers to board members as well.

“I might say, ‘Here’s how we can deliver the message that you want without being confrontational,’” she said. “It’s really a coaching process.”

Act On Early Warning Signs

Even when everyone knows the rules and understands that disagreements happen, in times of high stress, an unintentional slight can be taken personally and begin to grow into a larger conflict. Both Araujo and Carter-Conneen recommend watching for signs that tensions might be brewing in order to get ahead of the situation.

For example, “rubber-stamping and not really engaging are signs of a problem,” Araujo said. “A lot of people who don’t want to deal with conflict—or what they deem as conflict. They’ll just rubber-stamp, avoid.” Another red flag is “when you see someone bonding over a disagreement or a problem. They’re looking for the wrong things.” Araujo notes that people who bond by finding fault with others or by reveling in the causes of problems, rather than looking for solutions, bring a negative energy.

In those cases, the CEO or board chair should talk to the members involved and ask if they have concerns or if there’s a way to help.

Carter-Conneen agrees that “silence does not equal agreement,” and disengagement is a bad sign. When these occur, ask questions and listen to the answers. The goal is to find out “what do we need to do to make sure that person feels heard and we respond to their needs before they come back to the next board meeting and raise the same issue?”

Rasheeda Childress

Rasheeda Childress is a former editor at Associations Now.

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