Years ago, I served on a board where board members had the most horrible fights and the most destructive interactions. In spite of all that, the most poignant thing was, I knew that they really cared about the company. That idea completely intrigued me. I would sit and listen to them during those horrible fights and it was very distressing for me but I always knew that they really cared about each other and I couldn’t reconcile those two things together.
I became obsessed with the psychology of these interactions and learned about how emotions impact human dynamics in the boardroom. In the last two decades, the science of emotional connection has developed rapidly which has allowed me to build an emotional-focused approach to boardroom consulting that combats the destructive interactions that inspired my intrigue years ago.
The approach is simple—get to the root of the problem and fix it. While the approach is simple, the process of getting there can be difficult for people. We have to examine the way people communicate and then recognize the emotions that fuel that communication. Usually if there is a negative interaction, it is fueled by anxiety, fear, or shame—three emotions that people do not like to talk about. This is why it is so important as a consultant to have a plan and a grasp on how emotions can work for and against us. Let me illustrate this point by sharing a recent consultation I had with a small board of directors.
The team consisted of three board members who were having difficulties making decisions, communicating with each other, and getting things done during board meetings. In their description, they felt discouraged, disheartened, powerless, and embarrassed in front of their stakeholders. Usually, after a board meeting, they would retreat and focus on things that they individually had control over. This has been damaging to the company, as they have loss of direction and loss of focus. In short, the board was dysfunctional.
The goal of the consultation was to get everyone on the same page, reconnect, and eliminate the distance between the directors. Of the three board members, two were emotionally aligned and one was disconnected from the group. For the purposes of this example, we will call them Robert, Mary, and Steve. Mary and Steve had worked together in the past and had a great relationship. They spoke the same emotional language and understood each other’s cues. This made Robert feel left out. He believed that he was reaching out to his fellow directors with no success, which led him to put up walls and shut out his board members. I used our Board Dynamics Process to realign the directors, set up a safe environment, and give them the tools to maintain positive emotional connections in the boardroom in three stages:
1. Identifying the Current Interactional Cycle
Observe the negative interaction cycle and break it. As the board members spoke to each other, I asked them to become very aware of emotions—not only their own, but also their fellow board members. Robert would say something like “You guys are always working against me” to which Steve or Mary would respond with a defensive comment like “You never want to listen to us”— this is where I would stop the conversation and identify emotions. In this case, Robert was feeling attacked and left out. This was his way of reaching out, but because he was entrenched in such a negative cycle it came off as critical. This led to a response dripping with blame. Clearly, the board was not going anywhere with these kinds of interactions.
This is where the board needs to take a pause and identify what is going on—what is triggering these emotions? By asking them to explain exactly why they were feeling the way they did, it gave me a chance to validate their feelings. This validation is essential in creating a safe environment to share their anxieties.
As the board explored their interactional cycle and began identifying their emotions, I would encourage them to slow down as things would inevitably get a little heated at times. We slow emotions down so that we can unpack and make sense of them. By slowing down, the board is easier to bring into the current moment, which is important when trying to eliminate blame and get them to stop focusing so much on the past.
2: Restructure Interaction, Develop Cohesion
Once the board had recognized their negative cycle, it was time to create new emotional signals. We call this “enactment”. Basically it just means facing your emotions and allowing yourself to share them with your fellow directors. This board struggled with this step because they were so deep in the cycle. Getting Robert to say “When I don’t get a response from you, all I hear is I am not good enough and that hurts” was understandably a huge challenge because it put him in such a vulnerable position. We were building from a place of zero trust, so to put himself out there was extremely difficult.
Enactment is between the directors—I guide them through this process, but they have to speak to each other to really break down the walls and begin establishing the ever important emotional connection.
Now that the board was finally sending accurate messages to one another, we began developing a new positive interactional cycle. The goal is to create positive emotional engagement with the other directors. After Robert would share, I would ask Steve and Mary how that made them feel making sure to validate everyone’s emotions.
Changing the way people interact with each other is tough, and this board was no exception, but when I asked Robert how it felt to finally say exactly how he was feeling, he responded with, “It feels a hell of a lot better than running and putting up 3,000-foot walls and hiding all the time. It feels good.”
I can’t stress enough how much practice and patience it takes to develop a new positive interactional cycle, but the result increases board performance and the fulfillment of directors.
3: Consolidation and Integration
Finally, I asked the board to take a step back and view their progress. Looking at the amount of forward movement they made in just a short period of time is invigorating. It was motivating for the directors to see how different they felt after just talking about their emotions for a few hours. They had shifted out of a negative pattern that had been controlling their relationships for years. They took risks and were honest with one another—they were brave and faced a difficult challenge together. What they did was impressive and taking a moment to reflect on that will help them in the future when times get tough.
The board went from ten miles apart to standing right next to each other. During the process, we barely touched on any company material. This is part of the strategy—as a consultant it is tempting to come in and give your advice for the direction of the company or how they should change governance.
These are temporary fixes when the board needs something much deeper. Generally, directors are experts on the industry and are intelligent business people. The problem isn’t that they don’t know what to do, it’s that they don’t know how to communicate it to one another. Using an emotional-focused approach to boardroom consulting is about removing the emotional blockage so directors can make better decisions.
The three directors have a long way to go, but with a new interactional cycle and a safe environment, they are on their way to a more fulfilling role and higher performance.
When it comes down to it, a board is simply a group of people who must work together in stressful situations. While we can (and should) spend time focusing on governance, keeping up with industry trends, and assessing regulations, we must not ignore the human condition in the boardroom. Board members need to trust each other.
When they trust each other, they feel connected and safe. This is a need that is wired into our brains at birth—we need to feel like we belong. When board members are connected they work better together, they feel energized, and they have a better sense of accomplishment. They are stronger and can address any challenge that comes at them.
Lola Gershfeld, Psy. D., is a Board Dynamics Specialist at Level Five Executive, Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif. She can be reached at Lola@L5Board.com.