The Dynamics of the Boardroom: Typical Problems and How to Fix Them

Administrative board meeting of an international company

By Adrian Furnham

How do board members affect the future of an organisation? In this article, Adrian Furnhum provides a glimpse of the dynamics of the boardroom by tackling the common dysfunctions of a team and the occurrence of Groupthink as well as how these crucial issues could be addressed.

What people factors most influence the fate of organisations? Clearly, it is the organisation’s product and processes, its competitive advantage, and its recent history. True, but what about the “people” or “soft-side” of organisations?

A great deal has been written about the ability, motivation, and personality of the CEO. A school of thought suggests that this individual alone can determine the fate of organisations.  They can be seen as heroes or villains, depending on their success or failure in leading the organisation.

However, the chairperson also has a board that helps (and hinders) him or her in making decisions. They are literally “the top team” and can be very influential. Perhaps the most often portrayed board is the cabinet, overseen by the first among equals, the Prime Minister.

All boards are different depending on their history. Some are unwisely large; well over the seven plus or minus two recommendations which prevent them from splitting. Some are deeply homogenous comprised entirely of stale, frail, pale, males, while other celebrate a colourful mix of diversity. Some seem more competent than others. Some have the support of a good mix of non-executives.

But what seems common to many boards is unhealthy argument and conflict. Indeed, many report that they are so inwardly-looking, back-stabbing, and politically-devious to the extent that they take their eye off the board allowing the company to flounder.

 

Typical Problems

Board-watchers have identified a range of common problems of the board.

1. Bloated membership. Simply too many people. Power, prestige, and money are the drivers to get on the board and many senior executives see it as the pinnacle of success. This can easily lead to factions. There needs to be a clear, open, and business-case rationale for who should be appointed to the board.

2. Naked Ambition. Being on the board is good but being a CEO or even deputy is better. Often those who get to the board are deeply ambitiousself-confident, and clever operators. Many spend more effort plotting their own success than that of the company. Personal agendas trump the company’s success.

3.Conspiracy of Silence. Observers often note the number of issues that are never spoken about. This is about elephants-in-the-room, selective deafness, curious taboos, and most of all the reluctance, nearly always among men, to talk about feelings and emotions.

4.Resisting Centrifugal Forces. There are too many people doing their own thing and fighting for resources for their particular part in the organisation. It is about looking down rather than across or up the organisation.

5. Ambiguity of Roles. This is about knowing and agreeing who is responsible for what and of accepting those responsibilities. Too many boards have problems in staying focussed: having appropriate and agreed team processes, prioritising issues and getting on with it.

6.Resisting help. Refusing to admit issues and seeking outside professional help to make the team functional.

 

Characteristics of High Performing Teams

The business psycho-analyst Manfred Kets de Vries has noted that successful teams at work are comfortable asking for help, admitting mistakes and limitations, taking risks, and offering feedback. They are quick to tap into one another’s skills and experiences and avoid wasting time talking about the wrong issues and revisiting the same topics over and over again because of lack of buy-in. He also noted that they are efficient and can accomplish more in lesser time and fewer resources. They tend to put critical topics on the table and have lively meetings. They align the team around common objectives and retain star employees.

Often those who get to the board are deeply ambitious, self-confident, and clever operators. Many spend more effort plotting their own success than that of the company. Personal agendas trump the company’s success.

Three issues to ponder. All come from the book The Hedgehog Effect by Manfred Kets Vries.

 

1. How you see the team

• Does your team suffer from fuzzy goals/changing priorities?

Do you think there is a false consensus among the members of your team?

• Does your team have unresolved overt conflicts?

• Does your team find it difficult to reach closure?

• Are calcified meetings a characteristic of your team (i.e., people coming late or arriving not at all)?

Does your team suffer from

   unequal participation?

• Do the members of your team feel unaccountable for one another?

If most of your answers are YES, your team is in a lot of trouble. It may not even be a team.

 

2. Your part in the team

• Are you prepared to reveal your thoughts, feelings, aspirations, goals, failures, successes, fears, and dreams as well as your likes, dislikes, and favouritisms to other people?

• Are you willing to share with others information that helps them understand you better?

• Are you willing to put yourself at risk through intimate disclosure?

• Are you the kind of person who believes in the integrity, ability, character, and veracity of other people?

Do you have confidence in the capability of other people in fulfilling their promises?

  Are you always prepared to position yourself as vulnerable to others?

Are you convinced that others will not abuse your confidence due to your trusting behaviour?

If most of your answers are YES, it will be relatively easy for you to build intimate relationships with the members of your team.

 

3. How you see the team

• Do you believe that teamwork fosters greater efficiency and effectiveness?

• Do you think that the quality of output is higher when there  is teamwork?

• In your opinion, are decisions made more quickly when members work as a team?

• Do you think teamwork builds greater commitment among team members?

• In your opinion, does teamwork foster the maximum use of each individual capabilities?

• Do you think teamwork helps the cross-fertilisation of ideas?

• Do you believe that teamwork creates a greater sense of belonging?

If you have answered YES to most of these questions, you have the mindset to benefit greatly from teamwork.

This is a very useful diagnostic for any team and can help them get out of trouble.

 

Five Dysfunctions of a Team

In his popular book, Lencioni has noted common dysfunctions of a team.

1. Absence of Trust. The fear of being vulnerable with team members prevents the building of trust within the team. Teams without trust conceal mistakes and weaknesses and don’t give each other contructive feedback. Teams built on trust are more open, better informed about each other, and tap better into each other’s skills and expertise.

2. Fear of Conflict. The desire to preserve artificial harmony stifles the occurrence of productive ideological conflict. Conflict leads to office politics, personal attacks, and a reluctance to confront controversial topics. Teams without conflict have more passion, energy and the resolve to confront issues.

3. Lack of Commitment. The lack of clarity prevents team members from making decisions they will stick to. Without commitment, there is alignment rather than agreement and board members feel unheard.

4. Avoidance of Accountability. The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable.This often creates resentment among team members with very different standards of performance. Accountable teams identify problems quickly and respect each other.

5. Inattention to Result.: The pursuit of individual goals and personal status erodes the focus on collective success. This happen when members are self-focussed and distracted and rarely defeat their customers.

Again asking board members to raise these issues is a very healthy way of reflecting on board dynamics and performance.

The need to avoid interpersonal discomfort prevents team members from holding one another accountable. This often creates resentment among team members with very different standards of performance.

Groupthink:  a well known problem

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 (good decision-making) that the group has been forced to undertake.

Groupthink is the term given to the pressure that highly cohesive groups exert on their members for uniform and acceptable decisions that actually reduces their capacity to make effective decisions.

The concept of groupthink was proposed as an attempt to explain the ineffective decisions made by U.S. government officials, which led to such fiascos as the Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, the successful Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Vietnam war. Analyses of these cases have revealed that, every time, the President’s advisers actually discourage the making of more effective decisions.

To prevent or reduce the effects of groupthink, leaders should encourage each member of the group to evaluate their own and others’ ideas openly and critically.

Members of very cohesive groups may have more faith in their group’s decisions than any different idea they may have personally. As a result, they may suspend their own critical thinking in favour of conforming to the group. When group members become tremendously loyal to each other, they may ignore information from other sources if it challenges the group’s decisions. The result of this process is that the group’s decisions may be completely uninformed, irrational, or even immoral.

There are serious potential consequences of groupthink such as fewer alternatives are considered when solving problems. Outside experts who can add a great deal are seldom used. Re-examination of a rejected alternatives are unlikely as it makes the group unhappy. Facts that do not support the group are ignored; or their accuracy is challenged. Group morale is more important. Risks are ignored or glossed over; indeed and seldom assessed.

So how to reduce Groupthink? It is thought as much more difficult preventing it in the first place, because groups engaging in groupthink seldom realise that they are doing so. To prevent or reduce the effects of groupthink, leaders should encourage each member of the group to evaluate their own and others’ ideas openly and critically.

They could discuss plans with fair-minded outsiders to obtain reactions. Boards need to use expert advisers to redesign the decision-making process. It is a good idea to assign a devil’s advocate role to one or more group members to challenge ideas.

Subgroups (select committees) can also be used to develop alternative solutions and meet to reconsider decisions prior to implementation.

 

Groupthink arises in response to group members’ reluctance to “rock the boat”. Group leaders should encourage group members to be sceptical of all solutions and to avoid reaching premature agreements.

Given that groupthink is potentially dangerous, organisations often choose to implement decisions that avoid it by:

• Promoting open inquiry. Groupthink arises in response to group members’ reluctance to “rock the boat”. Group leaders should encourage group members to be sceptical of all solutions and to avoid reaching premature agreements.

• Using subgroups. Split the group because the decisions made by one group may be the result of groupthink. Basing decisions on the recommendations of two or more groups that are also trying to solve the same problem is a useful check. If the groups disagree, a spirited discussion of their differences is likely to raise important issues.

• Admitting shortcomings. When groupthink occurs, group members feel very confident that they are doing the right thing, which discourages people from considering contrary information. Asking others to point out their misgivings and hesitations about a group’s decision may avoid the illusion of perfection that contributes to groupthink. Groups must be encouraged to believe that doubt, not certainty, is always acceptable.

Holding “second-chance” meetings. Before implementing any decision, it may be a good idea to hold a second-chance meeting in which group members are asked to express any doubts and to propose any new ideas they may have. As people get tired of working on problems, they may hastily reach agreement on a solution. A second-chance meeting can be useful to see if the solution still seems good after “sleeping on it”.

 

Conclusion

Nearly anyone who has been a board member will attest to the fact they are often tense and dysfunctional groups. Some of the issues mentioned above can mean that the board makes consistently bad decisions which can have a dramatic impact on a company’s future. Some wisely use non-executives as good observers of board dynamics and processes to give good council and help before it is too late. Others call in consultants. But it is of course paradoxical that those dysfunctional boards who need the most help are those least likely to call for it.

About The Author

Adrian Furnham  was Professor of Psychology at University College London 1981 to 2018, and now Adjunct Professor of Management at the Norwegian School of Management. Previously a lecturer in Psychology at Pembroke College, Oxford, he has also been a Visiting Professor of Management at Henley Management College. He has written over 1200 scientific papers and 90 books.

References

1.Janis, I. (1972). Victims of group-think. Boston, Massachusetts: Houghton-Mifflin.

2.Kets de Vries, M. (2011). The Hedgehog Effect. London: Wiley

3.Lencioni, P. (2002). The Five Dysfunctions of a Team New York: Jossey Bass

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.