Being “too polite” in the boardroom makes for great collegiality and esprit de corps, but can hold back the overall effectiveness of the group and therefore the organization. With a little bit of intention and some thoughtful approaches you can have a positive friction in the boardroom that that leads to higher performance. Reaching that “healthy” level can be a bit of a tightrope walk.
By Kevin Smith
How polite are your boardroom conversations and your board interactions? If yours is like virtually all credit union boards that I’ve me, the answer is “extremely polite.” Politeness is certainly a virtue, particularly in a world that seems to have less and less of it. But can a group be too polite? If you’ve read anything I’ve ever written you’ll know that I’m “leading the witness.”
In the article, “The Board’s New Innovation Imperative,” Linda A. Hill and George Davis make the argument that politeness can be a liability for boards, particularly those that claim to be trying to push their organizations ahead, to innovate and remain relevant. I’m on their side on this one. But we need to be careful with these ideas and parse them out a bit.
Hill and Davis use the term “creative abrasion.” Their description of it is this, “[…]the ability to develop a marketplace of ideas not from a single flash of insight but from a series of sparks generated through rigorous discourse and debate.” I’m restoring an old cedar trunk of my grandfather’s and there’s a lot of sanding going. It’s preparation for the new, right? And I agree that this is necessary abrasion to get to the new, the valuable and the “not the same way we’ve always done it.” It’s creative tension.
There’s a lot to be said for decorum in meetings, but they can become overly deferential, where politeness, and not being willing to step on anyone’s toes (or feelings) gets in the way of generative group work. These are efforts to avoid conflict, which can stifle growing ideas. Hill and Davis suggest that truly innovative boards can learn to “tolerate come chaos” in their work.
Treat it as a Skill
The key to that is of course how the group goes about learning this skill. For some it comes naturally for others it can be a true phobia. Getting to this level requires some up-front discussion. One or two directors can’t simply push this approach without getting some buy-in. First, acknowledge this as a goal. Put it in the context of aiming for higher performance and better results for your stakeholders. By talking about it up front everyone hears the strategy and goal. Second, set the ground rules. Friction or a bit of chaos in the board room is not a license or an excuse for rudeness and disrespect. Create a clear distinction between disagreeing or challenging ideas and personal attacks.
This is never personal, but always about the best for the organization. For those uncomfortable with conflict, this discussion of expectations will help them to lean-in and work in this framework.
A Word or Two About Personalities
Introverts, Extroverts & Ambiverts
In a best case scenario, your board will comprise an equal number of introverts, extraverts and ambiverts. At worst you have all of one extreme or the other. (Ambiverts get a well-deserved pass here.) There’s been a great deal written in the last few years about these traits, their benefits and how to harness them. But this doesn’t happen passively or by accident. It takes some work. Extraversion has traditionally been more valued and rewarded. Introverts can tend to stay quieter thus appearing less engaged (which is untrue). As an introvert myself, I recognize my own need to lean in and prepare myself for the necessary engagement.
How can we make this work better in a boardroom with creative abrasion:
- Introverts – you know we don’t like to be put on the spot and do like to prepare our responses. Do your prep work so that you’re ready. Add in some acknowledgement so that you don’t seem simply passive. For example, if some mouthy extravert already made your point, speak up and let the group know that you agree. (You don’t need to repeat the whole spiel.)
- Extraverts – you know you need to speak to think, so keep this in mind. Make a little space for the quieter ones.
- Board chair – know your people and their tendencies. Acknowledge them and push for balance. Set up your introverts by giving them a heads-up for dynamic conversation topics and give them time to prepare.
Remember, this trait is mostly about energy. How you get it and how you spend it.
But let’s open up our thinking further. The introversion/extraversion spectrum is not about avoiding or engaging in creative conflict. There is another personality trait that covers this. It’s called Accommodation. It too is a spectrum with the ends being opposite each other: challengers on one side who thrive on conflict and adapters on the other who avoid it at all costs. Those in between are negotiators. Here again it’s helpful to know the personalities in your group and where they fall on this spectrum.
Those on the adapter side are inclined towards harmony in order to “keep the peace.” Again, discussing this up front will set the stage for success by setting the tone and the expectation.
As Hill and Davis suggest, this is a culture to be intentionally built. It will not happen by accident. The result is a group that will generate more, and higher quality ideas and approaches. It is the death of groupthink. It is founded on trust.