March 11th, 2015

Cartoon Image and Text I'm A Smart Guy

One of the perennial puzzles of governing boards is why we go to such huge efforts to recruit amazing people who are at the leading edge of their field, but then we fail to actually use that expertise. In the messy “VUCA” world we find ourselves today, this is the very reason that we have boards rather than the CEO flying solo: to have the best minds available to help lead the organization and address challenging strategic problems that require real knowledge and deep insight to find a solution.

Instead, we’re shocked to find that our experts and fellow board members defer to louder voices who are not experts in a specific domain of knowledge, and may actually be wrong. Why does this happen?

One answer may lie in some new research reported today about how the “equality bias” leads people in groups to defer to peers even when everybody knows that another person’s answer is probably more valid. There is a well-documented phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect where people who are less competent consistently overestimate their own competence. In simple words, they don’t know what they don’t know — and incapacity to recognize and learn from one’s errors is exactly the failing that led to making the errors in the first place. Now, in a very robust study across several countries replicating and extending past research (free registration required), researchers found that people working in pairs doing a sensory task would average the answers of the two partners even when they knew that one partner was better at the task than the other. In other words, they sacrificed the correct answer for both members of the team to feel good.

This is a particular problem on boards of directors where we’ve all seen volunteers who are reluctant to hurt their peers’ feelings or alienate anybody. This results in a “nicey-nice” culture where we sacrifice quality decision-making and leadership to maintain good relations. We end up with board members staying on beyond their expiration date because they meet the minimum criterion of fogging a mirror and the (short-term) cost of their badmouthing the organization is greater than the (long-term) cost of keeping them around. Especially in community based organizations where board recruitment is often already a challenge and people were recruited by friends on the board, there is very strong pressure to hang onto the board members that you have even when they’re not providing the best value to the organization.

In turn, this creates the other perennial challenge of boards of directors: the most valuable members have little patience for spending time in meetings where they feel like their knowledge and expertise is not valued. After all, these are people who you recruited because they have connections and are involved in other areas of organizational leadership and civic life — they have huge demands on their time and other competing commitments. So when their expertise isn’t respected or used, they are usually too polite to complain — instead they simply check out mentally and/or physically. This results in a vicious cycle that makes it very difficult to get and retain high performing board members, and we’re left with the people who may show up and speak up, but don’t really add value or provide leadership to the organization.

Just to be clear: I’m not saying that such people are not lovely folks who deeply care about the mission. Many of them may be among the organization’s founders, and their own expertise may have been exactly what the board needed at an earlier point in the organization’s life. However, if we truly want the best for our organization’s mission and the people we serve, sometimes a little truth-telling is needed. Negative feedback is hard to deliver under any circumstances. But it’s especially tough for boards to build the trust necessary to tell that truth when 90 minutes every 60 days is the extent of board members’ experience interacting with one another.

What can you do about it? Here are just a handful of ideas for starters — I’d love to hear yours.

  1. Go back to basics: revisit your bylaws to make sure you have term limits, and then actually use them. When the underperformers’ terms are up, have a frank conversation about their level of commitment, energy, and how they think they can best contribute to the organization. Board committees, workgroups, and advisory committees are a great way to keep people engaged even if their expertise and passion is not what the board needs from its governance volunteers. Then honor those people and celebrate their past contributions as they move into their new role in the organization.
  2. Conduct a board self-assessment* and interpret it through an honest lens: What is demanded of us as a board to provide strategic leadership to fulfill out our mission with the ecosystem in which we work? Ideally, this assessment should also include an assessment of individual board members performance based on agreed-upon criteria that the board has discussed.
  3. Create an inventory of board members’ areas of knowledge and expertise. If nothing else, this will contribute to the board’s transactive memory, a fancy organizational psychology term for knowing who on a team knows what. If you combine this with a discussion of what competencies and expertise the board needs to fulfill its key functions, then you can also use this exercise as a way to identify the gaps that you need to fill through recruitment of new board members or use of staff knowledge.

So what do you think? Is this something you’ve experienced as well? How have you tried to deal with it? What works? Share them in the comments here or on our Facebook page!