Leaders must learn to pick their baffles in the boardroom and allow debate flourish. It will lead to better team decisions, writes Kate Lanz.
The decisions that shape a business are made in the boardroom. But it’s often the place where the fiercest competition emerges as individuals seek to make an impression or avoid getting hurt. But this clash of egos can be damaging – both to individuals and also to the quality of decision-making.
Debate must flourish in the boardroom. Effective provocation gets people thinking and discussing issues rather than being defensive with each other, especially where there are deep differences of opinion. But hitting the right note to provoke real but non-defensive debate is tricky.
Take Peter, for example, a divisional managing director in a global pharmaceutical company. Peter thought that if you’d made it into the boardroom then you should be big, bad and ugly enough to fight your corner. He expected his colleagues to relish the cut and thrust of sharp exchanges and challenged to the point of putting people down in a discussion.
Peter is an extrovert who did not mind thinking out loud early. Having gone to boarding school at a young age, he’d learnt that you had to push hard to get your voice heard. He was repeating this pattern as leader of the internal board team.
He thought you had to be able to stick up for your ideas quickly and clearly, otherwise they could not be worth much. He was quite a comedian, too, and tended to throw in quips, which sometimes bordered on the sarcastic.
Typically, he would start the questioning. Over time, the group had become passive and allowed him to do this. But this reinforced his sense of dominance. He often used “Why” in his questioning. “Why do you think that would work?” “Why would you consider that approach with the resource constraints?” But the word can sound aggressive and forces the other person to defend a point of view. The context of the board’s debates was to defend rather than explore ideas.
Let’s contrast Peter with Linda, a bright woman who liked to have decisions made through reflection and reading written proposals. She led the UK division of a large insurance company and used the board as more of a place to win final approval for decisions. Executive meetings were quiet and debate was not actively encouraged.
She’s an intellectual reflective thinker, a private person whose team respected her intellect greatly. The team knew she would devote time for quality thinking before decisions were made. Her work rate was tremendous – and so too were her attention to detail and capacity to absorb huge amounts of information. Board members also realised that if they objected to a proposal she would hear them out. Over time, the team had become lulled into lowlevel debate at meetings.
Unlike Peter, Linda disliked feisty debate. Any raw emotion and overt tension left her feeling uncomfortable, slightly out of control and vulnerable as a result. The way she dealt with decision-making was to keep any emotional heat out of it.
In both of these cases, business results were good. But the two teams could have accessed higher quality by provoking more debate on key issues. At some level they knew this, and eventually reached out for coaching support to help them think about the dynamics of decision-making.
Here are key insights that arose in both of these situations and some useful pointers for top teams to consider when it comes to provoking productive debate:
* One of leadership’s main tasks is to help individuals feel psychologically safe around you and the other team members. This safe place enables people to make themselves vulnerable by putting their ideas out for debate, without fear of personal attack or belittlement.
Peter did not create this sense of safety. So he missed out on a lot of good thinking. Yet Linda made it too safe and the board became complacent.
* When people put forward ideas, leaders must encourage exploration rather than defence. How you frame and ask questions is important. This includes tone of voice, body language and creating time for each team member to contribute.
* Understand the differences in thinking and communication styles that each team member brings. For extroverts, thinking improves during debate. For the more introverted, quality of thinking gets better with reflection.
* Be aware of your own communication preferences as a leader. What gets you to think and debate won’t be the same as for others. Take a moment to imagine what it is like to be on the receiving end of your own style of provocation.
* Understand your motives for generating provocation? Is it to get the task done, to generate ideas, to create discussion, to make a decision? Many leaders use the same style for all of these situations, which is not effective.
Leadership styles can change with selfawareness. Peter learnt to soften his questioning style and language. He cut the quips and he created time for others to reflect before answering. The pace and emotional tone of the team changed significantly. It agreed that decisionmaking had become more effective.
Linda learnt to let the team debate. She found personal strategies for tolerating her own discomfort when the debate felt heated. The team began to enjoy high-level meetings much more. It felt that there were decisions made which would not have been reached under the former approach.
If all boards have rigorous debate around strategic issues, then the quality of decisions is enhanced. If leaders learn to let go of their ego defences or personal preferences, then they will access the best that the team has to offer.