How can you make your board of directors a more effective group? Building “emotional safety” is an important step to increased trust and performance.
In the last decade, the subject of board dynamics has gained significant attention. As manufacturers seek to boost performance, board dynamics has become one of the focal points for improvement.
The main idea behind board dynamics is that groups are more effective than individuals alone. A communicative individual can enter a non-communicative group and have their behavior reversed, but if a group has healthy communication patterns an individual who enters will change their personal behavior to be more communicative. This is why it is so important to work with the entire board when addressing issues of effectiveness. There are real connections between a board that functions at its highest level and a company’s financial success. Much of it has to do with the communication between the CEO and directors and the type of environment created in meetings.
The answer is emotions. Some people wear their emotions on their sleeves while others seem to suppress them. In both cases, the key is to command emotions. This is accomplished through emotional safety. Emotional safety isn’t a new concept – it just means that people feel safe to share their feelings and ideas without shame or blame. As humans, we are designed to thrive in safe environments. Cooperation and trust comes from having a secure bond with each other. If you know you have each other’s back and you feel important to the board, you feel more confident. This means that you will feel stronger for whatever is coming at you. Research shows that the more secure and safe you are in your group, the stronger and more cohesive that group will be.
Reflect and validate – being heard is calming. Safety can be accomplished when board leadership practices empathy and validates emotions. Really try to understand where your board is coming from. There are so many obstacles and threats in the manufacturing world that can bring stress into the boardroom, so validating fear and anxiety can help calm it before it starts affecting decisions.
Make the implicit explicit. When we feel stressed or anxious, we tend to send the wrong signal to each other. Clear, explicit communication happens over time, but you can make a commitment to it today. Ask your directors to stop assuming that their colleagues know how they feel and tell them. Saying something like “I am really concerned about the new technology our competitors are using and I think we need to spend some more time discussing it” rather than assuming that everyone is on the same page about a competitor’s tech goes a long way. Everyone has a different perspective which is why a board works, so it is essential that everyone is clearly communicating the threats they are seeing.
Eliminate the “bad guy” – people are not the problem; their negative interactional cycle is. It may seem like one director (or even the CEO) is the problem. They are always criticizing or shutting people out, but they are just instinctually reacting to their perceived reality. If someone feels like they are not being heard or no one cares about their opinion, they protect themselves by attacking. By eliminating the “bad guy” you can refocus the board on what the problem really is – deteriorated communication.
Catch the bullet – reframing a negative or blaming response. When people start talking about their feelings, things can get heated fast. It is your job as the CEO or Chair to catch the bullet before it hits anyone. When you hear an accusatory statement like “You’re not listening” or “You don’t care”, step in and reframe the conversation. Start by validating and empathizing but remind the group that everyone is on the same team and everyone believes in the company.
Understanding emotional connection is not about just understanding emotions, it is realizing that we are human beings who have a mammalian brain. We are not really different from each other. We are all are terrified of rejection. We are all longing to matter to the board we serve and we all want to know that when we call, our board members will respond to us. This is instinctively who we are. In a way, this is not just about creating board effectiveness, it is about a basic need in creating a safe and secure connection.
Once your board is communicating effectively and is working in a safe environment, they really open themselves up to achieving higher performance on every level. Directors will also feel more fulfilled and energized in their service to the board. It becomes cyclical – directors are happy which leads them to be more effective which leads to higher performance. Developing this trust and safety on the board is especially important when facing unexpected turns in the industry, hostile takeover attempts or handling PR nightmares.