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Dysfunctional Boardroom Behaviours (and what to do about them)

In my last post I spoke about boardroom dynamics – the social patterns that operate in the boardroom that shape the communication processes, which ultimately affect the decision-making capability of the board.

They are important because, as Cairns (2003) states in the book Boardrooms that Work: ‘What brings boards and companies down is dysfunction in their social system’.

When boards function well, they make good decisions. The reverse is also true – dysfunctional boardroom behaviours can significantly impact effective decision-making and board performance.

There is a lot written about dysfunctional boardroom behaviours and group dynamics. To keep it simple, there are four dysfunctional board group dynamics that are commonly described in the literature:

  1. Group think – Directors and management get on too well and decision-making happens too easily.
  2. Mistrust – Directors are wary of management’s agenda and constantly question and probe.
  3. Power – Directors support a charismatic director (not necessarily the chair) or the CEO who dominates interactions.
  4. Hands-off – The board plays a supportive advisory role as a group of experts helping management, but don’t necessarily understand the business well.

In my experience, if you find yourself on a board that operates with any of these patterns, there are a range of strategies that you can put in place to minimise the impact of each of these behaviours. Some of these include the following:

  • Where there is group think, seek alternative views or outsider viewpoints; promote validation of data and information.
  • Where there is mistrust, focus on developing a strong chair/CEO relationship, ensure board papers are of a high quality and encourage opportunities for the board and management to get to know each other better.
  • Where there is a dominant player, work to encourage and empower others to speak up, call out this behaviour.
  • Where the board is hands-off, work to gain a deeper understanding of the business through site visits and management presentations and ensure that at least one of the directors has content knowledge about the business.

As I mentioned in my previous post, don’t underestimate the important role that an effective chair plays in establishing and promoting good board behavioural dynamics. With the right chair, with the right capabilities, and a group of directors who understand their role and responsibilities, dysfunctional boardroom behaviours can be minimised.