Travis Kalanick, co-founder and former chief executive officer of Uber Technologies Inc., exits a building. In the background are some cars, some onlookers and a cameraman
Uber’s board members struggled to regulate the behaviour of co-founder Travis Kalanick © © 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP

The writer is Shell Professor of Global Leadership at IMD in Switzerland

Over the past six years, through teaching and reflecting on my own experiences serving on boards, I have developed ways to help directors gain a better grasp of their dynamics.

One recurring topic is the aspiration to cultivate a more positive organisational culture. It is essential to recognise that, in board discussions, talk is the work. When conditions consistently hinder the quality of talk on a board, it can significantly reduce the effectiveness of governance.

“Psychological safety” is the cornerstone of an effective board culture. Amy Edmondson, the Harvard Business School professor, describes it as the ability of a low-power actor to feel comfortable raising a concern or question without fear of reprisal.

In a survey of more than 1,000 participants in our own programmes for directors at IMD, we have found that only half consider their boards to be psychologically safe.

The case of governance failure at WeWork illustrates how even the most capable board members can find their voices silenced by the collective dynamics of a group. Mark Schwartz, a former Goldman Sachs partner, admitted that he had stayed silent too long during WeWork board deliberations as founder Adam Neumann continued to spend the company’s cash recklessly.

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One response is to explore strategies to foster more open communication. Psychological safety is a palpable yet abstract concept. Directors should seek to pinpoint specific behaviours during meetings that encourage or hinder open communication. They can then compile a concise list of these behaviours into a poll to use at the conclusion of each meeting. Reviewing the results together is a straightforward yet effective method for promoting psychological safety.

Another frequent concern is that of reining in a dominant and disruptive figure on the board, such as a founder, an autocratic family member, or an acclaimed executive. Uber’s board members, for example, struggled to regulate the behaviour of co-founder Travis Kalanick as a series of mishaps and scandals began to unfold.

To respond, the rest of the board can encourage the problematic individual to become more self-aware and adjust their behaviour to be more co-operative. Board members can help prepare with the use of non-confrontational simulations observed by coaches and offer feedback to each other.

A study of 149 Norwegian start-ups by Ekaterina Bjornali, Sarosh Asad and Siri Terjesen, published this year in the Journal of Management and Governance, shows that enhancing trust and increasing the amount of informal communication among board members can result in the mutual regulation of behaviour.

I divide board dynamics between what occurs “above the table”, or observable behaviour that is easily identified and discussed, and what happens “below the table”, which may be less visible and driven by unconscious factors. In a recent article published in Harvard Business Review, Fixing a Self-Sabotaging Team, Jean-Louis Barsoux and I argue that groups can create unconscious patterns that result in damage to organisations.

Can such a self-sabotaging pattern be detected early? One way is to create a sociogram, a visual representation illustrating the positioning and connections among individuals on the board, which is then interpreted through free association to uncover hidden patterns within the group.

This method often exposes the unconscious roles that have emerged within the board, particularly how individuals may have inadvertently contributed to sustaining the problematic role of a “hero” who can do no wrong. What the group initially perceived as the challenge of managing a troublesome individual is then recognised as a collective behavioural phenomenon.

In an article in the Academy of Management Annals published in 2020, Gianpiero and Jennifer Petriglieri note that groups facing a significant threat regress to a more infantile state. Members seek comfort in the company of the familiar rather than open themselves up a more mature state that enables self-scrutiny and the seeking of novel and disconfirming information.

Another self-sabotaging pattern is getting into a defensive mode, as illustrated by the boards of Theranos and Wirecard. Rather than examine the claims of fraud exposed by investigative journalists at The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times respectively, board members doubled down and backed their founders. This type of pattern may show up in a group’s sociogram as an impossibly close and connected network of members.

Directly engaging with board members to address their challenges is also an excellent way for management academics to stay updated on the latest theories and practices in governance.

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