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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Diverse Discourse in Board Meetings

Board Meeting

Board Meeting

Anita Varma

Anita Varma is the program manager in business, leadership, and social sector ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Summary: Recruitment is a key step for diversifying nonprofit boards. The next step is actively creating inclusive conditions for communication at board meetings.

Picture this: your board convenes and you look around the room. Seated around the table are people of a range of backgrounds, affiliations, and identities. Pleased with your efforts to recruit a diverse board, you begin the meeting and explain that the major topic of discussion will be brainstorming ways to expand programming for local communities.

When you open the floor for discussion, however, you’re met with deafening silence. After pausing for a moment to give people a chance to formulate their thoughts, you reiterate the discussion topic. Board members still seem intent to avoid eye contact, with the exception of one individual who indicates he has something to say.

“I don’t think we should expand our programming this year,” he declares. “It’s too expensive and the events from last year weren’t well-attended.”

You thank him for his thoughts and ask for others’ input. No one speaks.

Finally, and quietly, someone murmurs, “Yeah, that sounds right.” Others around the table nod.

What went wrong?

Research across organizational studies have indicated that more diversity contributes to better outcomes. Yet in the case described above, successfully recruiting a diverse set of people to the table did not organically spark a vibrant discussion. Why not?

Effective board diversity begins with recruitment, but doesn’t end there. Board meetings also need to provide inclusive conditions for communication so that a range of perspectives are not just present in the room but also articulated and empowered to engage with each other.

Facilitating a discussion among a heterogeneous group can pose unique challenges: with distinctive backgrounds, people are likely to have distinctive communication styles as well.

Confrontation, disagreement, debate, and speaking in front of a group may be steep hurdles for people from particular communication cultures to surmount.

On the other hand, discussions that aim at consensus, compromise, and active listening (rather than competition, winner-takes-all, and dismissive nonverbal behavior as a power move) may be foreign concepts for people from other communication cultures.

What, then, can organization leaders do to create inclusive conditions?

Drawing upon practices outlined in Standards for Excellence®, an ethics and accountability program for the social sector, here are six ways to begin creating inclusive communication conditions at board meetings:

  • Send an agenda in advance, with topics as well as questions so that people have a chance to prepare their thoughts.
  • Before diving into deliberation, do brief team-building activities such as a “gut check” where everyone goes around the room and shares a stressor from the week.
  • When opening a contentious issue for discussion, remind board members that everyone is encouraged to participate, that the organization welcomes dissenting views, and that for the purposes of brainstorming “the more ideas the better.”
  • Emphasize that both consensus and compromise can be productive and that the organization wants to encourage vibrant debate without “all-or-nothing” arguments whenever possible.
  • During a discussion, ask explicitly if anyone has an alternative viewpoint. If not, suggest one and ask for reactions to avoid groupthink.
  • Try alternative formats: rather than conducting a formal full-group discussion for the entire meeting, experiment with small groups, pairing people off, or incorporating opportunities for people to write their responses as well as share them in discussion. Collect responses at the end.

Recruiting a diverse board takes a step in the direction of greater inclusion in the nonprofit sector, but the benefits of diverse perspectives on a board can only flourish if people approach the discussion with a constructive, open mindset and willingness to listen reciprocally.

For more recommendations and resources on cultivating inclusive communication conditions for diverse boards, we encourage you to learn more about Standards for Excellence and upcoming in-person trainings.

How have you created inclusive conditions at your board meetings? Leave a comment to share strategies you’ve found effective.

Feb 12, 2019

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