the key to more effective boards

  • Date:01 Oct 2005
  • Type:CompanyDirectorMagazine

The key to more effective boards
isn’t given in the rules

The greatest challenges boards face is the way people engage with each other in the process of doing what has to be done, not the tasks themselves, says Sarah Cornally*

When people come together in a group there are a lot of forces at play. These include each person’s individual needs; psychodynamic traits; way of relating to others; decision making processes; relationship with power; position within the group; sense of personal significance; sense of belonging; proof of ability or value; need for approval or respect, and their sense of role and responsibility. That means when you have five to nine people around a table there’s a rich mix of possibilities.
Recently I was in a board meeting with a very dignified atmosphere. Everyone was polite and respectful. As the meeting progressed, I noticed that people were conforming to a specific line of thought, while outside the meeting people had expressed diverse views. I wondered had something changed, or were we all truly being co-operative with each other?
To test this, I expressed one of the divergent views I happened to agree with, and what happened next was interesting. Several people opened up to express different perspectives, creating a richer and more engaged conversation. The ultimate decision was far more valuable.
Human beings are programmed to want to gather in groups and there is a range of subconscious drivers in group formations. One of the drivers is the desire to fit in – to belong. This produces conforming behaviours. Another is to believe the group values you. This produces performing behaviours.
Yet another driver is to find like-minded people, those who share similar values to you, because this means you are likely to get on well together. This can lead to an attempt to stamp your values on the group, wanting them to agree with and adopt your views. Sometimes this creates long-winded debates as group members struggle over values; and the winner holds the power in the group.
It is important to recognise that typically these things happen subconsciously. There is no deliberate intention behind these behaviours. However, to ensure wisdom prevails rather than personal preferences, it is important for boards and chairpersons to be aware of these forces and be able to influence them in a positive and constructive way.
Good governance requires independence of thought, sound judgment and collaborative decision making. So there needs to be a balance between conforming and diverging points of view.
To achieve this, people need to have a healthy relationship with power, which balances confidence with humility, and is used responsibly to make good decisions. They need to feel valued, respected and have a sense of belonging for their ability, perspective and individuality, so they maintain the independence so important to the collective effectiveness of a board. Board members also need opportunities to demonstrate their value, so it can be put to good use. And these contributions must be acknowledged and appreciated.
Proving points; taking things personally; playing power games or deferring to the power base; avoiding tough issues; not facing reality; avoiding responsibility; serving personal interests or playing “the game,” are just some examples of things that lead to poor governance.
Rules and regulations do not prevent these things.
People can play around the boundaries and manipulate the rules so they are just legal, or it becomes a matter of interpretation. The only way around this sort of situation is then to test it legally. This does not assist the board’s performance.
Healthy group dynamics is the antidote. Creating effective, functioning groups, where independence is valued, diversity embraced and collaboration achieved, is the best pathway to effective boards and good governance.


* Sarah Cornally is a facilitator of the AICD Mastering the Boardroom program and a directors’ coach on the AICD panel. She is the managing director of Leading People and an expert in organisation dynamics and leadership strategy for directors/ boards and senior executives, with a focus on culture and performance. She is chairman of the board of depressioNet, an award winning, not for profit internet-based service for people who live with depression.