PMA Consulting, LLC

Does Board Culture Matter?

Given most nonprofit board’s focus on structure, policy and process, one might wonder if assessing a board’s culture is a worthwhile pursuit.  I posed that question to Dr. Will Sparks, Director of the Master of Science in Organization Development  at Queens University of Charlotte.  Sparks, who has studied boards in both the nonprofit and private sectors, raised some interesting points that might elevate your organzation’s focus on its board culture.

“Nonprofit boards, like any group, are subject to the same principles of small group behavior and organizational dynamics and as such, must take care to manage themselves effectively. At the end of the day, nonproft boards do one thing – they make decisions.  These decisions may impact operations, services, strategy, compensation, fundraising, and the like.  And although these outcomes are diverse, they are all a resort of one dynamic – small group decision making.”

Sparks notes that effective nonprofit boards must avoid two classic pitfalls in group decision making – the inability to manage conflict (“Groupthink”) and the inability to manage agreement (“The Abilene Paradox.”).  All groups – whether Fortune 500 Corporate Boards, athletic teams, or nonprofit boards – need to focus on the following three attributes of a high-performing board culture: 

1. Candid Communication – the norm for healthy group behavior must be on authenticity and candor, not politeness.  Members must be willing to be open and direct, offering their true beliefs and feelings and not what they think others want to hear. 

2. Healthy Conflict – Just like in any relationship, boards must be willing to engage in healthy, constructive conflict to reach higher levels of understanding, commitment, and performance.  A norm that prevents healthy conflict and open dialogue in order to maintain the “peace” at all costs creates a high degree of frustration and unrealistic optimism for the future. 

3. Task and Process – Most of our time in boards is spend on task – what we’re doing.  Being productive, making decisions, and moving forward are all important aspects of high performance.  But high-performing boards, where members are committed to each other and to the organization, balance the “what” with the “how” – the process aspect of group performance.  Investing some time in the “how we are doing” with the “what we are doing” can pay huge dividends for your board’s, and ultimately, your organization’s performance.

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