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Is Your Board Sub-Optimal or Even Dysfunctional?

February 5, 2016 by Dr. Jon Warner in Risk Management

Is Your Board Sub-Optimal or Even Dysfunctional?

Where they exist, boards come in many shapes and sizes. Some are small, loosely assembled and mainly advisory while others are large, very structured and may be quite interventionist in their actions (and all points in-between these two extremes).  But whatever its size and type the key question is whether or not the board works in an optimal way. This usually means that the board members trust one another, are committed to the organization, are comfortable with conflict, work hard to hold each other to account and are focused on results or outcomes. If any one of these is weak or non-existent (and in many boards several of these factors are weak) then your board is not preforming at its best or may even be somewhat dysfunctional and work needs to be done.

Research suggests that there are five major areas of weakness that are common to most poorly performing or dysfunctional boards. The first and perhaps most important of these is a lack of trust amongst board members. And if there is little or no trust on the board, members will often then:

  • Conceal their weaknesses and mistakes from one another.
  • Hesitate to ask for help or provide constructive feedback.
  • Hesitate to offer help outside his or her own areas of responsibilities.
  • Jump to conclusions about the intentions and aptitudes of others without attempting to clarify them.
  • Waste time and energy managing their behaviors for effect.
  • Dread meetings and find reasons to avoid spending time together.

As if this were not enough the second biggest weakness in most boards is a hesitancy or even refusal in some cases to have any conflict in discussions. This can lead to:

  • Dull, boring and even rambling meetings
  • Pointed/probing/searching questions being shut down quickly
  • Individuals being reluctant to raise concerns or objections
  • Individuals engaging in too much “politics”
  • Personal agendas being largely ignored or left to fester unchecked.
  • Sensitive or important or perhaps controversial topics, that are critical to board success, not getting enough or any airtime.

The third main weakness of most boards is when they fail to work as a team or to work together in highly collaborative ways. This weakness can lead to:

  • Ambiguity among the board about direction and priorities.
  • Missed opportunities due to excessive analysis and unnecessary delay.
  • A lack of confidence and fear of failure.
  • Repeatedly revisiting discussions and decisions.
  • Lots of second-guessing among board members.
  • An inability to create enough clarity around direction and priorities

A Fourth area of weakness is when a board avoids responsibility or is not accountable. This can tend to:

  • Resentment among directors who have different standards.
  • Mediocrity being tolerated.
  • Missed deadlines and key deliverables.
  • An undue burden on the Chair as the sole source of discipline.
  • Poor individual board performers not feeling the pressure to change or improve.
  • Not identifying potential problems quickly by questioning each other’s approaches. 

Finally, a board which is not results-oriented or focused on outcomes, is likely to have many difficulties and experience the following:

  • Discussions may often focus on the wrong/low priority issues.
  • The board may be easily distracted with minor or trivial issues.
  • Awareness of competitive actions will be low.
  • The CEO and senior managers may not be given stretching targets.
  • The same subjects may come up over and over.

So, in the light of the above, what does a best-practice board look like? Here are therefore 10 key items. A high performing board is likely to:

  1. Have mostly full and on-time attendance.
  2. Have complete clarity on what is expected of them individually and collectively.
  3. Have agendas that are well planned and crafted so that the board is able to get through all important/high priority board business.
  4. Have individuals well prepared ahead of meetings.
  5. Work specifically at building trust, both in and between meetings.
  6. Reward and recognize teamwork and collaborative effort.
  7. Have full and open participation from everyone in all board discussions.
  8. Enjoy different points of view, which are fully encouraged.
  9. Have full support for final decisions reached, even if there is dissention ahead of the decision.
  10. Have fun and interesting meetings.
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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at OptimalJon@gmail.com

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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