Which is better – an idea that everyone agrees with, or one that’s the result of conflict? That depends.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. As human beings, we like being with people who agree with us. It’s comfortable. We know what others are thinking. Boards have an easier time coming to consensus.
Unfortunately, that comfortable consensus isn’t always the best solution. The discomfort that comes with having to work with people unlike yourself is actually a good thing. In fact, that ease of working together may be keeping you from taking leaps forward.
Homogeneous groups don’t come to better solutions, as Columbia University’s Katherine W. Phillips, and co-authors Katie Liljenquist and Margaret Neale have found. They’re simply convinced that they did. Heterogeneous groups, on the other hand, come to better solutions. They just don’t think that’s the case.
According to Phillips,
“When you think about diversity, it often comes with more cognitive processing and more exchange of information and more perceptions of conflict.”
What I love about this is Phillips’ phrase perceptions of conflict. Having a difference of opinion is often perceived as a conflict, and we humans tend to magnify the potential discomfort in conflict. For most of us, our default mode is to avoid conflict, and that can lead us to avoid diversifying our boards (or staff!).
Less confidence = better outcome
In fact, it appears that this feeling of discomfort can also lead the group to have less confidence in their ultimate decision, despite actually having a better outcome.
Diverse groups make better decisions and have less confidence; homogeneous groups have more confidence and worse decisions.
Phillips hypothesizes that the very discomfort with diverse opinions causes the group to examine all the opinions more critically. There is less automatic acceptance, and a desire to defend one opinion versus another causes each opinion to be examined more closely.
A lot is written today about the need to diversify boards and staff, to reflect the diversity of the community we serve. We usually point to having a better understanding of needs and being better able to respond and serve those needs. What this study shows is that the benefits go well beyond reflection of the community.
Diverse groups make better decisions. What are you waiting for?
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This post is based on a report in KelloggInsight, from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, which summarizes the work published originally published in Society for Personality and Social Psychology.
Does your staff know what the board does? Really?
In conversations with emerging professionals, I find they often haven’t a clue what the point of a board is. Frankly, I sometimes get that question from Executive Directors, too [but that’s a whole ‘nother issue].
Passionate people working for you.
Right now, I want to talk about the staff. The young professionals. The people you rely on at the front lines to deliver your mission.
Most of them care about the mission. They care about why you exist. Many of them care deeply and passionately. It’s not just a job. Unfortunately, they often lack a big picture of the entire organization as a unified entity, supported by the volunteer board of directors.
They don’t see how they fit into the scheme of the whole organization. Looking upwards, their view often stops at the program manager, director, vice president, or perhaps the executive director level. They don’t even see the board. If they do see the board, its purpose is hazy.
Worse, that view of the board is often negative.
How do you portray the board to your staff? How often do you say things like,
- “The board said we have to do it this way.”
- “We can’t afford it because the board didn’t approve the budget.”
- “The board retreat is coming up and we have to make sure our presentations are perfect.”
What messages do these statements deliver?
The board is demanding,
doesn’t understand their realities
and is only worried about dollars.
Even if staff members can parrot back the purpose of a board, do they understand the ramifications and significance for their work?
What would be different if the staff knew that board members care as much as they do about the mission? That the board makes decisions with the future in mind?
What would be different if the board was transparent in why certain decisions are made? Not because you don’t have the funding, but because the funding is supporting the mission in other ways.
What would be different if staff understood that board members were doing their damnedest to make sure they had the resources to do great things?
Five ways to start building a better view.
- Reframe how you speak about board decisions. Instead of blaming the board for unpopular decisions, or acting like popular decisions are a surprise success, put the decisions into context, including the considerations taken into account.
- Introduce individual board members to the staff. Give staff members an opportunity to meet and get to know the board as a collection of individuals, rather than a monolithic, enigmatic entity.
- Include information about the board in employee orientations. Integrate the board into the organization chart, with information about its purpose – not just as the last resort for employee grievances.
- Invite staff members to sit in on open board meetings. Board meetings are frequently open, but staff may not believe they would be welcome. Even if employees don’t attend, the fact of the invitation is an indicator of welcome.
- Consider mentorships between board members and staff. While young employees are frequently mentored by senior employees, board members often have special skills they may be willing to impart.
Each contact between board and staff builds a greater rapport, and a greater respect on each side.
Its a simple start to a new year of building the trust needed for accepting and working with hard decisions and new opportunities.
May 2018 be a year of harmony, respect and trust!
- Did you read that article about risk leadership?
- What about that museum that lost $11 million?
- How did that agency get the government to move the needle big time?
Being able to reference new research – or outrageous nonprofit behavior – is a great way to engage board members. It’s a fresh entre’ to talking about the ramifications of changes all around us.
Find an article that is intriguing to YOU, and see where it leads your board.
That said, it’s sometimes hard to know how to stay on top of innovations in nonprofits; or what changes in society mean for your institution. There is an abundance of sources for nonprofit news, and numerous blog posts and articles by people who spend their time analyzing the effect of the world on the world of nonprofits. Some do it so engagingly, that it takes you a moment to realize how profound their message is.
How do you find them? Which ones are important to pay attention to? As one leader asked,
“Is there one place where they’re all brought together?”
Well, this list is not exhaustive, but it does include some consistently good sources in the nonprofit world, suggested by practitioners who work around the globe.
Resources for Nonprofit Organizations
This page has just been updated, and includes the sources for many of the articles I use in teaching about nonprofit leadership, governance and planning. Following them keeps me up-to-date on nonprofit news, and sparks ideas on what it means for my clients.
Check it out, find an article that interests you, and explore it with your board. See where the conversation leads. You might be surprised by engaged board members.
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Colleague Kay Keenan and I were having coffee this week, remembering times when we have spoken truth to power. Many people are advisors – consultants and coaches like Kay and myself, Interim Executive Directors, parents, teachers, co-workers. We are all in a position to tell powerful people things they don’t necessarily want to hear.
The question is whether these same powerful people turn to their advisors and ask for the truth.
A trusted advisor not only speaks truth to power, but is also to whom the powerful turn for truth.
The trusted advisor has to earn that position, by being transparent, open, and yet discreet; by mutually sharing personal history with the advisee; by always acting and speaking with integrity. By taking the time to earn that trust. By listening to the whole story, not just the immediate challenge. By asking questions that lead the advisee to finding the answers themselves.
With trust comes responsibility
With that trust comes responsibility. Those who are powerful are in a position to act on the truth they receive. The trusted advisor can be the voice that changes the outcome of a situation.
Who are the trusted advisors of the Chair and CEO of a nonprofit? The chair or president of the board of a nonprofit is powerful. So is the Executive Director/CEO. They are in positions to influence the direction of the entire organization, affecting their clients, their staff, their supporters – the entire community.
Do they speak truth to each other? Are they trusted advisors? Do they have others to whom they turn for truth?
Many people can speak truth.
A trusted advisor is one who is sought out for that truth.
When the CEO and Board Chair become trusted advisors to each other, your entire organization benefits.
Traveling from Wilmington to NYC is a great time to catch up on reading, and I used it to absorb an interesting mix of articles. Two apparently very different articles stood out as having a lot to say about the same thing: leadership and diversity.
Does Diversity Harm Execution?
In this Harvard Business Review article, Does Diversity Actually Increase Creativity?, author Thomas Chamorro-Premuzic contends that while diversity is great for generating new ideas, implementation bogs down in diverse groups. This observation is based on a meta-analysis of more than 108 studies and 10,000 teams. While I don’t have the knowledge base to review the data, he states one conclusion that belies the entire premise that the problem of poor implementation is due to diversity:
“Good leadership helps. The conflicts arising from diversity can be mitigated if teams are effectively led.”
Further, yet another conclusion states,
“Knowledge sharing is key. No matter how diverse the workforce is, and regardless of what type of diversity we examine, diversity will not enhance creativity unless there is a culture of sharing knowledge.”
So, while the data shows that diversity is great for creativity, but bogs down in implementation, the correlation does not necessarily mean causation. The cause may not be diversity, but the lack of leadership and the lack of knowledge sharing.
Do We Cheat Enough?
Which leads me to the second article, in ForbesBrandVoice, Trust, Diversity and Passion – The Three Ingredients of Successful Organizations. Here, author Richard Bliss tells the story of a team of highly intelligent, forceful young leaders, who, in a military test, failed spectacularly. There was great diversity of thought and passion, but instead of sharing their knowledge with each other, each contended to prove that they had the right answer. They wanted to show that they were right, instead of working together.
Why is it so hard for smart, intelligent people of diverse backgrounds and thought processes to work together? Bliss quotes Vivek Wadhwa, of Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering:
“When you and I went to school, we were taught to be individuals. … If we shared knowledge with each other, it was called cheating.”
How true! Our educational system rewards individual achievement. If we share our knowledge with others or ask for help from other students, we are cheating.
What is the Leader’s Role?
Bringing together diverse viewpoints, experiences, mental processes, and aptitudes; sharing what we know; allowing others to also contribute – these all go against our childhood training.
Does diversity lead to more creativity? It appears yes. Does it take good leadership to make the most of the diversity? Again, it appears yes. Merely creating diverse teams is not a magic bullet.
Leadership is fostering the growth of the team so they can listen to, acknowledge and learn from each other, in order to achieve extraordinary ends. No one person has all the answers. No one type of person has all the answers.
How well did you know the other people on your board before they (or you) joined?
Were you good friends? Did you live near each other? Did you work together? If you’ve read this blog for a while, you’ll probably expect me to tell you – again – that boards need diversity. It helps with innovation, it avoids tokenism, it promotes sustainability.
I’m not the only one writing about it. Many studies, like here and here, show that diversity increases the success of a group or an organization. Whether we say we need diverse viewpoints, diverse backgrounds, diverse experiences, or diverse voices, it all translates into this: groups perform better in the long run if they are not homogeneous.
Network analysis gives us an insight into why this might be especially true when it comes to finding knowledge and resources.
Mark Granovetter posited that information flows through weak ties more than through strong ties. If you travel in the same circles and have the same friends, you are said to have strong ties with each other. If you happen to know someone whose circle is different, but don’t interact frequently with them, you are said to have weak ties.
These acquaintances are exposed to different ideas and different information than you are. So when you interact with these acquaintances, you are then exposed to new information that your strong ties do not have. In the words of Skye Bender-deMoll,
“although your close friend may work harder to help you get a new job, it is likely to be an acquaintance that actually gets you a useful lead.”
Let’s extrapolate that to your organization. If most of the board travels in the same circles, their knowledge of resources is more likely to be similar than when members of the board come from diverse communities.
But if different members of the board have different networks, they bring those networks with them when they come to the board table. Along with their different experiences, they bring different knowledge and different entrees to resources.
As boards emerge from the founding stage, they tend to seek people with ‘deep pockets,’ implying that money is the only resource that matters. However, dollars are only one kind of resource; they are often a proxy for the resources that are really needed. They seek dollars because dollars can buy the resources that are needed to fulfill the mission: staff, rent, supplies. But resources come in many forms: community good will, contacts with particular skills, potential clients, individuals with elbow grease, advocates in different communities.
In many cases, the tangible resources themselves are available, without having to expend dollars – if you have the contacts that can bring them in.
By diversifying the composition of your board, you increase the number of weak ties for your organization. Weak ties multiply the opportunities for finding and developing resources that make it possible to fulfill your mission.
Why is diversity on your board important? More voices, more viewpoints, AND MORE KNOWLEDGE AND RESOURCES.
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