The Importance of Vulnerability in Board Development in California CEO Magazine

Great board dynamics are a crucial element of a functional and successful board. Board leaders are constantly asking me where to start with board dynamics. There are a lot of different elements that need to be addressed in regards to board dynamics, but I always encourage them to start with emotional safety and vulnerability. When people feel emotional safety, they will be willing to be more vulnerable. We know that vulnerability leads to more creative and courageous thought. Introducing it can seem scary and daunting, but here are some ways to create emotional safety that leads to vulnerability.

Tune into your emotions.

What triggers you? How do you feel when you get triggered? What do you do to protect yourself? What do you need to feel safe? Do you need reassurance? Do you need more information? Do you need more understanding or knowledge? When you understand your need with each of your board members, you will be able to more articulate that need without coming across as aggressive or defensive.

Quiet your critic.

Are you aware of your critic that is sitting on your shoulder? The critic looks for what the other person is doing wrong and tries to attack it. Criticism can lead the conversation down a dark path and trigger a negative cycle of interaction. Pay attention to the critic and quiet him down. Remind yourself that you care about your fellow board members and that they care about you. Reinforce the idea that you both believe in the same vision for the company and you all want to be successful. This will help you to focus on being more engaging than critical.

Stop negative cycles.

Negative cycles are a danger cue to the emotional brain and create a panic which triggers a fight or flight response. Learn more about negative cycles here so that you can become more aware on how your board gets stuck in these negative cycles, what to do about it, and how to lead the board into positive interactional pattern.

Learn to identify emotions behind the words.

Naming the emotions calms the anxiety and people feel being understood. Every emotion has an action tendency associated with that emotion. At one of my sessions, a director was complaining that the CEO never admits his mistakes. After the emotions were addressed, the CEO was able to share that he does not admit mistakes because he is afraid that his mistakes will then be used against him by the director. He could share this because safety was established through addressing his emotion. That type of vulnerability was only possible because the CEO was safe to share his fears.

Pay attention to the tone of voice and facial expressions.

Research shows that we respond to the tone of voice and the facial expressions faster than we respond to the words we hear. It is the primary indicator of safety. If you ask a question in a harsh and angry tone, your fellow directors will be responding to the tone, not the words. The words are processed in the cognitive part of our brain and the tone of voice and facial expressions are processed in the emotional part of the brain which overrides our cognitive functioning.

Develop empathy.

Empathy creates emotional safety and gets to the heart of the problem. Know that you have an impact on each other, the more you can emphasize the safer the board will be for vulnerability to happen.

Accept the fact that your fellow board members have a need for attachment and emotional connection as much as you do.

This is wired into our brain and when we can connect, it calms us down.  We need each other to succeed and when we feel like the other person cares as much as we do, it reassures us of our safety and allows us to be more vulnerable with each other. The most effective board members accept the need for others and create what we call Constructive Dependency. This makes the board stronger by reassuring them that they can face danger and survive, it helps them to have the confidence they need to explore the world and address challenges together.

Create a healing environment.

Everyone makes mistakes and not every strategy works out as planned. Have a way to share the pain that each person experienced when things don’t go as expected. Help to regain the emotional balance needed to be accessible, responsive, and engaged. These elements are essential for exploring new opportunities and keeping the board united and strong.
Emotional safety promotes vulnerability to be open and take the risk of disclosure. This is what really strengthens board dynamics. With vulnerability, we deepen our relationships with others, create trust, and develop the confidence we need to address challenges together.

Enhancing board dynamics takes time, but a good place to start is emotional safety and vulnerability.

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