Friday, 12 October 2018

Board Work is Hard - Part 8 of 10:Psychology 101 for Board Members

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.

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