Behavioural problems can manifest in many ways; pursuing individual agendas as opposed to the organisation’s agenda; particular directors controlling the debate; board members belittling, blaming and/or threatening (alleged claims of legal or governance misconduct); turning up without preparation or undermining colleagues... the list goes on.

The benefit of having diversity on a board is that it can bring different perspectives and strengthen decision making. However, it can also test a board’s ability to manage conflict and to accept new perspectives. How we respond determines whether we benefit or otherwise. Big decisions tend to bring conflict and tension to the surface. Bad behaviours are inevitable and it helps to remember that they don’t always come from a self-serving place.

While it is not realistic to prevent all bad boardroom behaviour (we are after all humans), when confronted by it, we have to have a toolkit to deal with it. This is so as to maintain a positive board team and minimise the impact of difficult meeting behaviours.

The horse’s mouth

Here are some of the common stories shared by directors:

“I was on a board with a director who found fault in everything. Not intentionally difficult, they just had a closed mindset. The consequence was that we spent a lot of time kind of pussyfooting around them and trying to politely rein them in at meetings. We wasted a huge amount of time.”

“I worked with a director who fought every decision he didn’t agree with by saying ‘I have taken legal advice on this, or this wouldn’t stand up to governance best practice’ The consequence was that board trust was damaged and board members were reluctant to speak their minds”.

“A few directors I know clearly believe that their view is always the best. And that the rest of us just need to be enlightened. As directors we need to remember that our colleagues have a right to share their perspectives too.”

“Once a board decision was taken, there was one director who would phone individual directors afterwards explaining why the decision was a mistake calling for alternative actions.”

Behaviour patterns

Director behaviour creates boardroom dynamics, which drives board culture.

Boardroom psychologist Rob Newman, says that “bad behaviour such as dominating by the chair or individual directors, triggers a reaction such as anxiety or silence in other directors. And when this pattern repeats over time, a habit is formed in the group which seeps into and shapes boardroom culture.

“But if you catch bad behaviour early, then you can prevent it from becoming a habitual boardroom dynamic that affects group discussion and decision-making.”

Newman identifies six early warning signs that it is time to speak up and intervene. These indicate bad behaviour patterns, which negatively impact board effectiveness.

  • 1 Corrosive relationships – directors don’t like each other.
  • 2 Emotionally exhausting discussions – meetings are hard work.
  • 3 Board becomes less talkative – people are beginning to withdraw.
  • 4 Directors avoid uncomfortable topics – fear of offence and conflict.
  • 5 Directors retreat to their expertise – unwilling to comment on other topics.
  • 6 Coalitions and alliances form – because directors lack influence as individuals.
  • The result

    The consequence over time of poor board dynamics is the creation of dysfunctional boardroom cultures. These show up as silence in the boardroom, where directors do not speak up when they disagree with the views or behaviour of colleagues, or as withdrawal when topics are contentious or discussion becomes uncomfortable. Other examples include;

  • Corrosive climates of mistrust and competition.
  • Board members being canvassed in between meetings.
  • Board materials being shared inappropriately.
  • Board integrity compromised.
  • The chair being undermined.
  • Where the focus is on egos, not issues, where real contributions are inhibited, trust and relations will be eroded and commitment and board solidarity is lost.

    Strategies to deal with difficult behaviour

    While chair interventions and team building techniques can help, at an individual level there are three approaches a director can take to address bad behaviours.

    1 A first step is for directors to bring to life the ground rules outlined in the boards code of conduct (Charter).

    2 A more direct approach is to give offline feedback to the offender. This can be done as part of a board director’s performance management process. Not enough boards are using this strategy – which can be useful for a variety of conversations.

    3 The most confronting is to publicly “call out” the bad behaviour. For example:

  • Talk to fellow director’s offline about your colleagues’ pattern of bad behaviour, the impact on you and the fact that you want to do something about it.
  • Get their thoughts on this.
  • When the behaviour arises again, publicly state: “I find your tone and approach out of line, it is unacceptable to behave like that with fellow directors.”
  • Ask: “How do others feel about this?” This makes the behaviour a topic for board discussion and allows the group to reiterate behavioural expectations and norms.
  • Problematic board members that seriously disrupt a board’s operations and effectiveness present a considerable challenge for both the chairs and fellow board members. In many cases, the “nettle was not grasped” in facing up to this problem at the appropriate stage and implementing an effective action plan to address this.

    Where poor director behaviour is tolerated, it inevitably leads to a serious impact on the board as a team and ultimately lets down all other board members, shareholders and stakeholders. The board need to show shared courage and leadership in facing up to and solving this problem.

    Karen Brosnan MBA is a consultant specialising in strategic planning and implementation, leadership development, governance, best practice, diversity and inclusion, culture change, communications, staff and stakeholder management. Karen advises boards and executives of organisations in the ag food sector.

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