Monday, 18 March 2019
Yet another province is conducting a review on the future of elected school boards. Manitoba has just hired the same external consultant who recently recommended that Nova Scotia do away with elected boards – which it did. If you were thinking that it couldn’t happen in your province, think again. Unlike the relationship between provincial governments and locally elected city governments, the connection with school boards is often troubled or tenuous at best. Questioning the value of school boards is not new but the past decade has seen a greater erosion to the number and autonomy of boards than ever before.
As the new saying goes, it is time to be “woke”! But just sending letters to government isn’t going to cut it. Boards have to make a full court press to the people in their local communities - those who aren’t directly connected to schools and don’t normally vote for trustees - to be concerned about the erosion of local democracy. They have to appeal to something that these non-education system voters might directly care about. Would they care if the province was going to take away their right to vote in their municipal elections for mayors and councillors? Would they care if decisions about their local streets and businesses were going to be totally centralized in the capital and not locally? Would they care that their real estate values are tied to the quality of their local schools and they should have a direct say in that? Do they care that the youth in their towns will be subjected to province-wide cookie cutter policies that don’t differentiate between one community and the next? As employers, might they care about attracting local graduates to stay and work in their communities?
If boards can’t get their local constituents to impress upon their MLAs that local voice matters - both for Councils and school boards- then the government will happily accept the recommendations of an external consultant and chalk it up to cost savings, efficiency and standardization. I fear that some boards live and operate in an education bubble, talking mostly to themselves, parents and education partner groups - preaching to the choir.
Here is just a quick list of some things boards might consider to start building the same kind of respect and support enjoyed by city councils.
- appoint a full-time committee to explore, advance and monitor community engagement (the whole community!)
- build community engagement into your strategic plan and reporting structures
- hire a staff person to promote and communicate public outreach – this is much more than a website (communications is a specialty)
- rebuild the idea of schools being community hubs rather than shutting them down at 4:00 and weekends or charging the local Brownie group to use the gym
- appoint a member of the local city council to be a non-voting member of the board
- appoint a trustee to attend every city council meeting, make presentations, build partnerships
- build real collaboration and shared services with the city and your local MLAs
- get your provincial trustee association to hire a full-time legislative staffer who will live in the halls of the legislature, connect with MLAs and constituency offices, and build connections with government
- get your provincial association to do real research on the benefits of boards, not just to learning outcomes but community outcomes, and the false narrative of amalgamation cost saving
- connect directly with business leaders, get them to present at board meeting and schools, build the case for the connection between schools and community success
- attend, join and invite other community groups such as Rotary, Kinsmen, business associations etc.
- connect with the real estate board about the quality of local schools to potential buyers
- figure out which groups and businesses have the most influence with government and lobby them (yes I said lobby)
These are just a few ideas and there are probably a hundred other things you could and should be doing. Boards cannot take for granted that everyone gets what you already get – that local schools and local school governance makes a difference, not just for students but for the well being of the whole community.
Make this a priority now.
Saturday, 2 February 2019
The Manitoba government recently raised the possibility of eliminating or amalgamating locally elected school boards - not the first Canadian province to have threatened or done so. This suggests a lack of respect for and understanding of the important role that school boards play in democracy and student achievement.
Canadians have been selecting their fellow citizens to govern their local schools before the federal and provincial governments even came into existence. School trustees know a thing or two about governance and democracy! The argument that low voter turnout in school board elections is proof of their lack of importance to constituents is wrongheaded. It is true that turnout for school board elections are low in some cities (which is also the case in many municipal elections), but in other areas, local citizens exercise their franchise quite passionately, particularly when funding decisions made by provincial governments threaten schools and program closures. School boards, along with their municipal government counterparts, are closer to their constituencies than provincial and federal levels of government. School trustees act as the guardians of one of our most important public goods - and surveys have repeatedly shown that Canadians believe their educational interests are best served by local representatives. There is no more valid and genuine form of democracy than locally elected school boards, precisely because school trustees are not professional politicians. School boards put the public – the local public - in public education!
These attacks on local governance also fail to recognize that in addition to their democratic value school boards can and do positively impact student achievement. This is not just a fuzzy sentiment or trustee self belief. It is backed by research conducted throughout North America showing that school boards that exhibit certain governance skills have a positive impact on outcomes in the classroom – regardless of the socio-economic demographics of their communities. In the most recent OECD review of 72 countries, Canadian students ranked among the best in the world. Clearly, the current form of local governance is working. What problem needs to be fixed?
Research and experience has also shown that the elimination or major amalgamation of school boards does not produce real savings or reduce bureaucracy. Regionalized/centralized structures don’t eliminate the number of decisions that have to be made in school districts. They just result in broad policies that attempt to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the unique needs of local communities. When parents are forced to bring their local concerns to a centralized provincial body the path to resolution is complex and their voices are diminished.
The model of local governance through publicly elected school boards is not redundant, flawed or broken. Manitobans, and all Canadians, must raise their voices to protect this critically important level of democracy.
Dr. Stephen Hansen
Thursday, 27 December 2018
School Trustees are amazing! You set the conditions that will affect the lives and future of thousands of people in your community and province. You are literally building the future!
So, what better time than the approach of a new year to reflect on your trustee role and to set personal development goals for the coming year? Here’s a little self-reflection survey to consider how you and your board will work towards these hallmarks of good governance.
Happy New Year – and thank you for the critically important work that you do!
1. I can connect everything I do as a trustee back to improving student achievement.
2. I focus on policy development and monitoring district/student success rather than administrative matters.
3. I take into account the views and needs of the entire district rather than favouring specific groups.
4. I express my views clearly during debate but support the majority decision once made.
5. I come well prepared for board and committee meetings.
6. I am knowledgeable about our district bylaws, policies and the school act.
7. I express my opinions in a respectful manner.
8. I make decisions based on data and the input of others.
9. I am an ambassador for our students and school district in the board room, in schools and in the community.
10. I invest time in my own learning and development as trustee.
Monday, 12 November 2018
Just about any school trustee will tell you there is a lot to learn about being a good board member. Yes, there’s the relentless mass of information trustees have to digest, but the hardest part is learning the “people” side of board work. As the past Executive Director of a provincial school trustee association the majority of the calls for support I received from trustees involved issues related to roles, responsibilities, and interpersonal conflict. Board work is people work and it can be messy at times. The good news is that most issues can be resolved through a willingness to work together, learn together, and by keeping what’s best for students foremost at all times.
The following is a list (in no particular order) of some key truths about being a board member, gathered from trustees themselves, board governance literature, and my own observations. There is certainly more to being a successful trustee than this, but if you master these points you will be well on your way to great governance.
(1) Quoting the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want”. One of the hardest lessons for new trustees is that once elected you have no individual power to achieve those things you ran for. You can only achieve your goals by collaborating with others on the board. Sometimes there will be instant recognition that your idea is brilliant – other times, not so much. Don’t take it personally. Democracy can be frustrating, but that’s what got you here.
(2) Once elected you are representing the whole community – not just those who voted for you. You may have run on a specific platform or were supported by a particular group, but once you are on the board you are collectively responsible for all the issues. This is the moving from “me-to-we” part of board work. You are responsible for it all – together.
(3) You are not the Superintendent (or the principal, or the bus scheduling supervisor). It is VERY tempting to want to get in there and fix things, particularly when you have received that phone call from an upset parent. Except for emergency issues that should immediately be brought to the Superintendent’s attention (and the Board Chair) individual trustees do not get involved in operational issues. Full stop. Trustees can only act collectively as a board and should not be jumping in to solve individual matters. When you get that call for help or that complaint in the supermarket line, hear the person out and then explain to them that they first need to speak to the relevant staff member – teacher, principal, superintendent. If these have been tried without resolution or if this is a recurring matter that may require a review of current policy, then perhaps it is a matter that should be brought to the board through the proper channels. It’s hard when people expect you to be their dragon slayer but that’s not your role.
(4) There will be difficult and unpopular decisions to make. Of course, you knew this coming into the job but nothing can really prepare you for the angst of having to make some of those decisions or the passion from the individuals whose cause is in your hands. A key part of your role is to make decisions that are in the best interests of the community and its students overall, which often means there will be winners and losers. Passionate presentations to the board and loud protests can place a lot of emotional pressure on trustees. However, the board must act as a dispassionate judge, making decisions based on the best evidence available at the time, existing policy and the advice of senior staff. Once made, it is the decision of the board not individual trustees.
(5) Make sure board work is conducted using proper, gold standard procedures. This topic is so important it really deserves its own full article, but briefly, here are some "dos and don’ts" about board meetings:
- Resist the temptation to discuss and decide matters outside of formal/public board or committee meetings. Meetings before the meeting, prearranged voting, and coordinated decision-making by email should be avoided. In-camera or closed meetings should be restricted to those very few matters where confidentiality must be maintained (such as legal, personnel and individual student matters). Arranging things ahead of time may make for a quick and smooth public meeting, but democracy demands transparency, even if it is messy. I love the tag line from the Washington Post newspaper, “Democracy dies in darkness”.
- Run the meetings using Roberts Rules and your local meeting policies/bylaws. While this may feel overly stiff and formal, it will keep you out of all kinds of trouble. It makes it very clear to senior staff when a decision has been made, keeps speaking time equitable, and keeps everyone accountable.
- Live by the "no surprises" rule. Don’t use the public board meeting to spring an embarrassing question or issue on senior staff or other trustees. This isn’t a contradiction to the point above about conducting your business in public. You or your Chair can certainly give the Superintendent or Secretary Treasurer a heads-up that you will be seeking information on a particular matter, and good agenda building should eliminate most surprises. Intentionally grandstanding or trying to embarrass staff or another trustee damages the reputation of the whole district and will hurt you in the long run. Yes, dig for information to make informed voting decisions. Yes, hold your Superintendent accountable. However, do so with decorum and respect.
- Debate and dissent take place before the vote, not after. It is entirely appropriate for you to voice your opinions and possible disagreement about a proposed decision during the debate. That's why you are there. But when the voting is done, win or lose, the debate is over and you have an obligation as a member of the board to go along with the decision. Continuing to work against the decision overtly or behind the scenes is inappropriate and against the very nature of how school boards are legislated to work. If you strongly feel the board has made a bad decision there are formal ways to bring the matter forward again if new information might change the outcome. You may also want to clarify your position on the matter during the next election campaign. But apart from that, remember you are part of the “corporate board”, which is a single unified entity, and therefore you are obliged to at least accept the majority decision even if you may not like it.
(6) There are no successful boards and school districts that do not have a good working relationship with their Superintendent. Hiring a Superintendent is the most important decision a board will ever make. In doing so, you are entrusting the achievement of the district and its students to this one person. Firstly, the board is the employer. It is your job to provide the Superintendent with clear and achievable goals, and to monitor progress towards those goals. However, the Superintendent can’t achieve the goals in an atmosphere of mistrust or disrespect. You can do nothing without staff and you can do nothing well without a trusting and respectful relationship. Communicate, communicate, communicate – and if you have any doubts, seek help from your provincial trustee association.
(7) If the majority of your agenda items deal with operational/administrative matters you are focusing on the wrong things. This is related to point #3 above but refers to the whole board rather than individual trustees. I am often surprised at how much time boards spend on administrative and operational agenda items rather than higher level matters of identifying strategic outcomes, monitoring progress, and developing guiding policies. It may not be as immediately gratifying as discussing a tangible operations matter but successful boards maintain that “mile high” perspective as much as possible.
(8) There will never be enough money. This isn’t a partisan statement, just a fact. The needs and opportunities in your district will always outstrip the funds available, so tough allocation decisions will always have to be made. It’s the nature of the beast. Yes, advocating for more provincial funding for your district is an important role for your board and your provincial association. But if you always use the lack of funding as a reason for not meeting your district’s goals then you are missing the point. In addition to advocating for more money you have a responsibility to appropriately allocate the limited funds available as best you can. It’s tough but that’s what good boards do.
(9) Being on a school board is a difficult, time demanding job. However, it is also a rewarding commitment that makes a difference in students’ lives and your community’s future. I strongly believe there is a direct relationship between good governance and student achievement. Being a good board member requires time and hard work, but when you drive home after those long and difficult meetings you can be assured that you are doing more than just moving along the business of the district. You are setting the conditions that will impact student success both today and for years to come. Every student in your district has a future and you have a hand in what that will be. And that’s awesome!
(10) Lastly, take heart, have courage, and know that you are not in this alone. You are a member of board - work together. Your board is a member of a community of trustees throughout the province and across the country. Tap into the resources and expertise of your provincial and national school boards associations - learn together. Being a school trustee is one of the greatest things you will ever do!
Wednesday, 31 October 2018
The focus of the previous posts in this series has largely been on prevention – practices and procedures that boards can employ to reduce the likelihood of board disharmony. Unfortunately, despite the best of efforts, sometimes board members just can’t get along. This final post in the series explores what to do when all else fails.
First, some important caveats are required. The following is not legal advice. While there are some steps a school board can take to deal with individual trustees who refuse to work within the rules, these options vary from province to province. I strongly urge any board considering sanctioning a board member to seek advice from their provincial association and legal counsel before proceeding. Second, you need to give careful thought to the potential consequences of acting, or not acting, against an individual trustee. How will it hurt or enhance public trust in the board? Are you prepared for a protracted public and possibly legal battle? Will the sanctions actually make a difference or will you be engaging in a fight that the individual welcomes? Not easy questions to answer - and sometimes things get to the point that a board has no option but to act – but doing so should not be done hastily or in anger.
The board needs to differentiate between behaviour that is just annoying versus actions that clearly compromise the board’s ability to fulfilits mandate. Differences in views, domineering behaviour, or surly attitudes may be frustrating, but may not by themselves justify limiting an elected trustee’s rights. On the other hand, individual trustees cannot do whatever they want. They have a fiduciary duty to act in good faith and maintain the integrity of the office and the board as a whole. Behaviours that clearly break the rules or threaten the responsibility of the board should not be ignored. Sharing confidential information, conflicts of interest, bullying and harassment, refusing to respect the will of the majority of the board, or acting outside of the authority of the corporate board need to be addressed early.
That said, the following is a listof escalating steps a board may consider when faced with such behaviours. It is important to first try the softer approaches before considering more serious sanctions.
Reason and Reasonability
The first step on the ladder is trying to change the behaviour through reason and understanding. Some basic aspects of natural justice need to be considered. Is the individual aware of the problem? Do they understand why the behaviour is an issue for the board? Have they been given an opportunity to express their reasons for their behaviour? Have they been given sufficient time to make corrections? Are there things that the board itself is doing that is making the situation worse? Are there accommodations the board could make to satisfy some of the trustee’s concerns? In all likelihood,you have already taken these steps, but it is important that they aretried and documented before considering sanctions. It is important to remember that as an elected representative, individual trustees have the right to strong opinions and to debate them vigorously. There is also no rule that trustees need to like each other. However, all board members have a shared and greater responsibility to support the corporate board in meeting its duty to the public and its responsibilities under the School Act.
For some of the less egregious behaviours that may be annoying but don’t directly threaten the rights of the board or staff, a board should seek ways to contain the behaviour, particularly if it is occurring during board meetings. As discussed in Part Four of this series, boards that have established good meeting procedures reduce the chances that individuals can dominate or frustrate the meeting. School boards have the power by resolution to control the conduct of their meetings. This includesadopting a set of meeting rules – often based on Robert’s Rules of Order – and skilfulchairing. More relaxed procedures and informal board table discussions may feel more comfortable, but there is greater chance that meetings will stay orderly when procedures are well-establishedand consistently applied. That said, it is also possible to further tighten meeting rules if necessary. With the approval of the board, more stringent rules can be adopted to limit how often all members may speak on any particular motion and for how long. The board Chair also has the ability and responsibility to remind board members about appropriate language and tone.
A problem can arise, however, if an individual trustee refuses to abide by the meeting rules or follow the direction of the Chair. This is where you need to get advice on what your province’s School Act says on the matter. Most, if not all, provinces empower the Chair to eject a member of the public who is disrupting a meeting, but not necessarily an elected board member. However, if the meeting is getting out of hand the Chair can temporarily recess or adjourn the meeting. This, of course, is not a long-term solution but may be necessarily in the interest of safety and to give the board time to consider its options.
Censure and Exclusion
The school board has the authority to control the conduct of its meetings. If a member exhibits misconduct the board may, by majority vote, decide to censure a trustee. It is important to understand though that this is largely a declaration of disapproval by the other board members and has limited real consequences for the censored individual. That is not to suggest that censor has no value, but it also doesnot have the power that some boards may be looking for.
The decision to censure a fellow trustee should not be taken lightly or quickly. A board should determine that all other reasonable attempts to change the behaviour have been taken. The motion to censure is normally debated in a closed meeting of the board and if successful, may remain private or be reported out (but not debated) at a public meeting. The trustee in question should be given advanced notice of the motion to censure along with the reasons behind it, and be given an opportunity to speak to the motion.
In its mildest form,a censure is merely the board officially stating its disapproval of the individual’s conduct. This peer pressure may be sufficient to modify the behaviour. If the board decides to make the censure known publicly it ups the stakes for both the individual and the board. A public censure will undoubtedly be of interest to local media, which could help to curtail or embolden the behaviour, depending on the perception of who is right. Regardless, the board should ensure that the reasons and process for the censure are fair and can be defended.
Depending on the circumstances a board may include limited exclusions for the censured trustee. For example, if the issue was a sharing of confidential information from a closed meeting the trustee could be excluded from future closed meetings on that matter for a period of time. A trustee may also be removed from related committees or other responsibilities previously assigned by the board. In most provinces, however, the offending trustee may not be excluded from public meetings while they are still an elected trustee. The provincial government can only remove a trustee from office for very limited reasons – and not gettingalong with others is not one of them. Once again, I want to stress that public censure and exclusion from some duties are serious actions and should not be considered without legal advice.
The intent of this ten-part series has been to explore the reasons why and remedies for school board disharmony. Happily, trustee in-fighting is infrequent and usually transitory. However, given the significant importance of the role of school trustee,it is incumbent on those who hold that public office to do so collaboratively. Much of this series has been devoted to the preventative measures that should be taken very early in a board’s term. These include a comprehensive orientation to the trustee role to understand its responsibilities and limits; the development and exercise of a robust code of conduct; clearly communicated and enforced procedures for conducting board business; and understanding of the roles of trustees and senior staff in achieving the board’s goals. The nurturing of the right attitudes and understanding of the political and personality side of board work is also essential. Finally, when all else fails, boards need to know the tools at their disposal to deal with disharmonyand have the wisdom to know when to use them.
It is my fundamental belief that school boards are critically important, not only for the essential task of governing the delivery of public educationbut also because school boards and the trustees who comprise them are fulfilling an essential democratic function. Along with their municipal/regional counterparts,they are the closest democratically elected representative of the citizens in their community – closer than any other level of government. Although often unrecognisedand under-appreciated, school trustees are what the name implies - individuals who have been entrusted by their fellow citizens to envision, shape and monitor the success of the public education system – a task important not just to the parents of school-aged children, but to the whole community and all society. What happens in the schools of today shapes the world of tomorrow.
Thursday, 25 October 2018
The old saying, “Too soon old. Too late smart”, is as applicable to boards as it is to life in general. We get busy. We focus on the multitude of tasks and responsibilities that life throws at us. The days go by with little time to check on how we are doing, to learn and to improve. Too soon old. Too late smart.
Boards have processes in place to provide ongoing monitoring of student achievement and district budgets, but unfortunately, this is not often done for the board’s own governance practices. While most boards are quite accepting of the need for regular performance reviews for their Superintendent but they are less inclined to do so for themselves, preferring to leave this up to the voters at the next election – the ultimate performance review. The problem is this doesn’t promote ongoing governance improvement. The answer is board self-review.
Self-review is a process where the board, often with the help of a facilitator, looks under the hood at its own governance practices to determine what is working well, what is not, and what changes need to be made. It is a process that increases accountability back to the community, demonstrates leadership, and instils a sense of continuous quality improvement, not just for the board but the entire district. It is the board saying, “If we expect others to assess their performance for improvement, then why not us?”
As stated above, the primary focus of board self-review is not to review district-wide student achievement or finances, but how the board goes about its governance business. This may include questions such as: Do we have effective processes in place to ensure we have sufficient information on which to make decisions? How well do our meetings run? How is our committee structure working? Are we living our own code of conduct? Are we getting along? How is our relationship with senior staff? Are we clear on our roles and goals? Are we adequately engaging with our community? How well do we communicate with each other, with staff, with our community? What do others think about our work? And most importantly – how can we do better?
These are critically important questions for all boards and there are several ways the answers can be determined. The process can range from a formal assessment using surveys and interviews to a less structured, facilitated dialogue among trustees. There are numerous tools and processes available for board self-review, but I highly recommend that a board make use of the services of its own provincial association or a skilled external facilitator who can guide the process. This is still a self-review – the external association or consultant is not passing judgement. They are there to guide the process and allow the entire board to participate equally. Self-review does not need to be costly or time-consuming. It does need to be safe and confidential (although the board should consider some level of reporting out to its constituents to demonstrate how seriously it takes its governance responsibilities). Asking yourself and others how you are doing can be a challenging experience. There is no point doing a self-review if it is a superficial pat on the back exercise. On the other hand, it needs to be carefully managed so that it doesn’t leave identified issues without a path to resolution. Another critical point is that the review is about the board’s performance as a whole. It is not about “fixing” individuals.
In a future posting, I will discuss the topic of superintendent performance review but will say here that the two processes are (or should be) intricately connected. The success of any school district is highly dependent on the quality of the superintendent’s leadership – and the superintendent’s success is the board’s responsibility. How well the board is working with and supporting the superintendent must be part of the board’s own review.
The main theme of this series has been on intra-board relations, but the underlying premise is that good governance is a skill set that must be learned, nurtured and assessed. Although an essential component to good governance, it is not enough just to care. One must be willing to learn and be committed to improving. Board self-review is the path to both.
Friday, 12 October 2018
Board work is a group endeavour, reliant on individuals reaching agreement on the important matters before them. The challenge is that people see the world through their own unique lenses based on their experiences, motivations and personalities. Even people who may fundamentally agree on a matter will likely be unique in the way they reach decisions, process information, and interact with others. We all have a natural affinity for those who are like us – the “birds of a feather” phenomenon – and we find it more challenging to work with those who are not. But, the very nature and value of boards are that they bring together different perspectives to ensure broad representation and thinking. So, while there is an intentional benefit to the diversity of perspectives and personalities on a board there are also the related challenges of working through these differences. Developing an understanding of the diversity in perspective and personality is the first step.
There are several different models in psychology that attempt to describe different personality types. They are useful in helping us understand the diversity in personalities but they also run the risk of pigeonholing the complexity of human behaviour into discrete categories or “types”. We know, of course, that nobody is always one type or another, so we need to be very careful when discussing personality types to remember that they are only broad descriptions that describe behaviours that individuals may more frequently exhibit - but not always. That said, let’s look at some of the different ways that people make up their minds and how they interact with others during that process. The following is a very high-level look at one of the more popular personality typologies, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). There are several other typologies that could apply but I like the MBTI because it is useful in describing important board-related functions of how individuals approach decision-making and how they interact with others – but remember, nobody fits purely into any one type.
Big Picture versus Detail: How we prefer to gather information
One way of thinking of this dimension is the forest and the trees analogy. Some people are really good at seeing the trees and need to focus on the details of a matter before reaching a decision. They tend to focus on practical, fact-oriented details and are less comfortable with theoretical discussions. Others aren’t as interested in the details and want to focus more on the big picture - the “idea”. The detail people will argue that you need to understand the parts before approving the whole. Big picture people prefer not to get immersed in the details. Both perspectives are valuable, but the dialogue between the two can be frustrating. It takes real effort to step back from your personal preference for how much detail you want or don’t want and to find the right balance. This is also tricky for senior staff who generally have the responsibility for providing the board with sufficient information for making an informed decision. Too much detail may overwhelm the process - not enough will result in complaints. Getting this balance right is a moving target but the first step is understanding that different board members have different needs in this area. The second step is to increase tolerance for these differences.
External versus Internal: How we process our thoughts
This can be one of the more noticeable and challenging differences in board work. Briefly put, some people are more outgoing, more comfortable speaking their minds and actually need to verbalise their thinking to help them reach a decision. Others are more internally focused. They prefer to do their processing in their heads before expressing their opinions. They tend to speak less often on the board and when they are ready may find that the discussion has moved along faster than they like. The more outgoing members will naturally take up more airtime and may incorrectly assume that those who are not speaking either don’t “get it” or don’t have an opinion. The internal thinkers may feel that the others are dominating the discussion and have already made up their minds. But this is not necessarily the case as sometimes external thinkers need to float a number of trial balloons before landing somewhere. Put another way, some people think before speaking while others speak while thinking. This, of course, is not fully true of all people, but we do tend to get frustrated with those who either share their thinking too much or not enough. Another challenge with this dimension is that in the general population the internal processors are significantly outnumbered.
One of the ways to accommodate these differences is through good chairing and meeting procedures. This can help to level the airtime playing field preventing some from dominating while leaving space for others to add to the debate when they are ready. If you are one of the external processors try to jot down some of your thoughts before you get the floor to clarify your thinking. Try to limit how often and how long you speak and don’t assume that those who are not speaking have nothing to add. If you are one of the internal processors don’t assume that what you are hearing is the other person’s final position, but don’t hold back too long before you express your own opinions or you may find a consensus has already formed.
Logic versus Feelings: What counts more when deciding
Another dimension that can influence how we make decisions is whether we focus more on logic or feelings when making up our minds. Of course, we all rely on both logic and feelings to guide our decision-making, but people tend to favour one over the other. For example, if the information presented to the board logically supports changing the enrollment area of a school some trustees may feel that the negative impact it may have on some students should take priority. Both positions have good points but they will be prioritised differently due to our logic or feelings-based lenses. One personality type will focus more on the facts and bottom line. The other will focus more on how people will be affected by the change and may want to avoid the potential conflict. One type will think the other is being illogical. The feelings-based type will feel the other is being cold-hearted. These are difficult debates to resolve because both types see the same information in different ways. As frustrating as that may be at times, this diversity can improve a board’s decision-making by ensuring that all perspectives are considered. Ultimately one perspective must prevail when the matter comes to a vote but at least both sides must be openly and fairly considered. Imagine if the entire board focused mostly on logic or mostly on feelings. Decisions might come more quickly and with less dissent but they may not necessarily be the best ones in the long run.
The way to capitalise on this diversity is to first be aware of it. If you listen carefully to individuals as they debate a matter you will hear clues as to which lens is taking priority. As has been mentioned before, good meeting processes and chairing will ensure that all perspectives are heard and hopefully considered. Acknowledging the other person’s perspective demonstrates that it has been heard. Ignoring or not valuing the other perspective will lead to hard feelings and endanger the quality of future decisions.
Action versus Flexibility: How we move on
This dimension refers to a person’s eagerness – or hesitancy – to actually make and enact a decision. For some people making the decision, ticking it off the agenda, and moving on to the next item brings a sense of accomplishment, and closure - “We’ve received the information, we’ve heard everyone’s opinion, let’s vote and move on.” For others, there is discomfort with the rigidity of deciding and moving on - “Maybe we should get more information, or consider more options before deciding.” These individuals may feel that the board is rushing and that more consideration is needed, while others may feel that they can’t make up their minds or are uncomfortable taking a stance.
These different preferences for action can cause tension among board members and create feelings of not being understood. This is a more challenging dimension to manage through meeting processes alone. For some individuals, it doesn’t matter how much information they have been provided or whether they had ample time to express their opinions. They just don’t like to have to finally decide. For others, they may have made their mind up quickly and will get frustrated with what they feel is an endless debate. These are the board members who will call for the question to be put.
As with the previously discussed dimensions, awareness of the differences in preferences is the first step, along with tolerance for those differences. Ensuring that adequate information is available to guide the debate (and this will not be the same for everyone), and making sure that everyone has had an opportunity to speak can help to minimise the impact of these differences. Also, during the board’s annual self-review (more on this in the next posting) there should be a review of the board’s decision-making processes, along with an honest sharing of how individuals feel about them.
The Richness of Types
The above overview has outlined just four personality dimensions that may influence board work and intra-board relations. When you consider the variety of ways that these preferences can be mixed within each individual it can become very complex – and these certainly are not the only personality differences that board members bring to the table. This underscores the folly - and danger - of trying to “type” each member or always treating them in some particular fashion. Personalities are multi-faceted and variable. A good analogy is "handedness" – whether you are more comfortable using your right or left hand. Under normal circumstances, we could use either hand to complete a task but we are more competent and comfortable using one over the other. Our personality dimensions are similar. It’s not that we can’t be logical, or focus on detail – it’s just that we are naturally more comfortable exercising one aspect over the other. While this makes intra-board relations challenging the keys to maximising the potential of these differences are (1) accepting that these type preferences do exist; (2) understanding nobody always follows all of their type preferences all of the time; and (3) believing that these differences actually can result in stronger boards and better decision-making with the appropriate procedures in place. The creators of the Myers-Briggs personality typology aptly used the phrase “gifts differing”, which is what they are and exactly why boards have multiple members.