How to Ensure a Healthy and Constructive Board Culture – Part 1


How to ensure a positive and beneficial board culture

Traditionally, the board focuses on balance sheets, market trends, and profit and/or cost margins. However, an often overlooked yet vital thread exists in the intricate tapestry of organisational success – the quality of the board’s culture.

As experts with an extensive portfolio of over 500 board reviews, the Board Surveys team have delved deep into the inner workings of boards across diverse sectors. What has emerged from this comprehensive analysis is a startling revelation: up to a quarter of boards exhibit some form of dysfunction. This often subtle and insidious dysfunction seeps into the very fabric of decision-making processes, hindering the board’s ability to function optimally. Even more concerning is the likelihood that the actual numbers might be higher, for dysfunctional boards tend to shroud themselves in secrecy, avoiding the scrutiny of thorough reviews.

This article explores the heart of board dynamics, exploring the intangible elements that shape the boardroom atmosphere. Let’s delve into the ‘soft stuff,’ the nuances of values, emotions, and behaviours that many boards struggle to address. These invisible forces influence every interaction and decision, often operating outside our conscious awareness. We aim to unravel these complexities to shed light on the aspects of board culture that are felt and experienced but seldom articulated. And as this is such a big topic we have are delivering our perspectives in two parts.

At its core, this discussion transcends industry boundaries. Dysfunction knows no sector; it can infiltrate the boardrooms of financial giants just as quickly as it can seep into the governance structures of non-profits, large and small. By understanding how a board shapes board culture, we can discern the disturbances preventing a healthy board culture from flourishing. This article confronts the uncomfortable truths, challenging conventional notions and encouraging a paradigm shift in how we perceive the dynamics of corporate governance and board effectiveness.

The complexity of board culture

Boards, often envisioned as bastions of strategic decision-making, are intricate ecosystems governed not only by rules and protocols but by the very essence of humanity itself. Behind the polished veneer of professionalism, each board is a mosaic of imperfect human beings driven by individual and collective success, ambition, competition, and pride. Far from being homogeneous entities, boards are diverse collections of individuals, each bearing a unique tapestry of habits, preferences, and past experiences.

It is within this diversity that the complexity of board culture arises. Each director brings distinct skills, perspectives, and, crucially, biases. These biases, born from personal experiences and ingrained beliefs, often operate subconsciously, subtly shaping the board’s collective decisions and attitudes. The interplay of these individual biases forms the foundation for the board culture.

In essence, boards are microcosms of the wider society, reflecting the intricacies and imperfections of human nature. Regardless of their impressive credentials, directors are susceptible to cognitive biases, influenced by emotions, and driven by personal motivations. This human element injects dynamism and challenges into the boardroom dynamics, making every decision a product of strategic understanding and the amalgamation of unique quirks.

The impact of a board transcends the confines of the boardroom walls. What directors do and say reverberates far beyond the table of governance. They serve as the compass guiding the organisation’s ethical direction. Their decisions set the tone for the entire organisational culture, influencing how executives interpret policies, lead with integrity, and instil ethical conduct throughout the workforce.

The boardroom serves as the crucible where individual idiosyncrasies, honed by years of experience and shaped by diverse backgrounds, converge to create a unique board culture. Recognising this intricate interplay is essential, for it is only by understanding the multifaceted nature of boards and the imperfect humans steering them that we can unravel the complexities of board dynamics and pave the way for a healthier, more constructive board culture.

Understanding unhealthy board cultures

In establishing a healthy board culture, it is paramount to acknowledge a fundamental truth: no boardroom is immune to imperfections. The idealised notion of a flawless, seamlessly functioning board is a mirage. Like their executive counterparts, even the most distinguished boards can succumb to the seductive lure of infallibility and entitlement. This sense of invulnerability often blinds boards to their collective failings, leading them to dismiss or suppress cognitive biases and emotions in favour of cold, hard facts and reason. However, this deliberate detachment from the human element comes at a profound cost, measured in the erosion of group functioning and the deterioration of genuine, open dialogue.

What exacerbates this situation is the tendency of boards to adopt coping strategies, especially in the face of disruptive events or significant organisational changes. These coping mechanisms, often unacknowledged and unconscious, manifest as unhealthy behaviours. You can expect to observe directors and executives unknowingly resorting to control, avoidance, denial, and hubris strategies. These strategies, born out of a desire to regain a sense of stability, paradoxically contribute to the erosion of board culture.

A perfect storm brews in this complex web of coping strategies, cognitive biases, and suppressed emotions. Under certain conditions, this confluence of factors can manifest dysfunctional dynamics within a board. Paralysis or conflict, once confined within the boardroom, can seep beyond its boundaries, infiltrating the very operational domains of the organisation. This insidious infiltration marks the onset of decay when the rot sets in, undermining the board’s efficacy and the organisation’s integrity.

Understanding the roots of an unhealthy board culture becomes crucial amidst this delicate balance of power, emotion, and coping mechanisms. To truly foster a constructive culture, it is imperative to recognise and confront these destructive patterns head-on. Only by acknowledging the existence of these shadows and bringing them into the light of awareness can boards hope to break free from the cycle of dysfunction and work towards a culture that is  healthy, robust, resilient, and enduring.

Join us for part two: Unraveling destructive board coping strategies and dysfunction

In most boardrooms, destructive coping strategies often lurk in the shadows, shaping decisions and relationships without the directors’ conscious awareness. As we navigate deeper into the heart of board culture, it becomes evident that these coping mechanisms, including control, avoidance, denial, and hubris, are instrumental in perpetuating dysfunction. They form the invisible threads that bind the board’s actions, often leading to perplexing relationship breakdowns and organisational disarray.

Part two of this exploration will spotlight these destructive coping strategies, dissecting their origins, manifestations, and impact on board culture. By unravelling the complexities of these behaviours, we aim to provide a comprehensive understanding of the subtle yet profound ways in which they influence decision-making processes and interpersonal relationships within the boardroom.

Through real-life examples and in-depth analysis, we will delve into the nuances of control, where the desire for stability transforms into micromanagement, stifling creativity and collaboration. We will explore avoidance, the art of sidestepping uncomfortable truths, which, while providing temporary relief, often leads to long-term consequences. Additionally, we will confront denial, the shield behind which boards hide from inconvenient realities, and hubris, the overconfidence that closes their eyes to their fallibility.

By acknowledging these coping strategies, we pave the way for a deeper conversation about the intricacies of board culture. Part Two will serve as a roadmap, guiding boards and executives toward a more nuanced understanding of their behaviours. By recognising the destructive patterns, we can catalyse meaningful change, fostering healthier board cultures and, consequently, more resilient, adaptive, and successful organisations. Stay tuned as we unravel the layers of coping strategies in part two of this exploration.


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