What does great engagement in the boardroom look like?

July 28, 2020

July 28, 2020



Board members who experience particularly rewarding board meetings often talk about having had a great 'debate'. Well, perhaps. Strictly defined, however, a debate is a contest with participants pitching two opposing and irreconcilable positions against each other. The result is a win for one side and a loss for the other. These are not characteristics of productive and satisfying board meetings.

So, what has happened in those particularly satisfying board meetings is not debate. It is most likely to have been a distinctly different mode of discourse, widely known as 'dialogue'. Dialogue involves deep, honest, inclusive, and respectful interaction among participants. It starts from the expectation that board members will bring different ways of seeing things and that they will engage in ways that lead to a more thorough understanding of those differences. And, as a consequence, boards will make better decisions.

Typically, definitions of dialogue describe it as '…shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together.' Dialogue seeks to harness the 'collective intelligence' of a group such that together, its members are more aware and smarter than they are on their own. (Isaacs, 1999, 11)

Dialogue has numerous advantages over debate in the boardroom. For example, it:

  • Increases the likelihood that everyone will be 'heard', regardless of status
  • actively seeks a deeper understanding of each perspective (and, in the process, challenges generalisations and unsubstantiated assertions)
  • supports feelings (and a wider range of them) to be expressed
  • encourages greater honesty and openness
  • makes explicit otherwise unexamined assumptions, beliefs, preconceptions, and biases
  • generates learning, produces new options and encourages innovation
  • helps bridge gaps between adversaries
  • avoids forced, sub-optimal compromises to which there is no real commitment

No matter what we call the process that produces these benefits, unless board members feel heard and engaged, and if their knowledge and concerns are not considered, all bets are off. Any agreements the board makes will not be lasting, and successful implementation of any plans on which those agreements are based, unlikely.

Vital preconditions for productive boardroom discourse

A commitment to learning

To be effective, a board must foster collaboration between its members. This means creating a learning community whose members are not just open to new information and ideas but active in their pursuit. Each member of the board must be confident that their colleagues will:

  • genuinely want to get their contribution
  • receive questions and comments with an open and positive attitude without negative predisposition or bias
  • actively listen to what they have to say rather than just pausing while they talk
  • ask for their help, work with their suggestions, and demonstrate respect for their judgment and intentions, and
  • be interested in knowing them as a person and will appreciate and keep in mind their individuality when listening to their questions and comments.

A recognition of the power of questions

A board can act more decisively and confidently when it has conducted a thorough inquiry than if it is just relying on a narrow range of resources, opinions, and perceptions. For that reason, rather than having all the answers, board members are more effective when they can frame and ask good questions. Effective questioning helps both a board and its executive team to develop a broader and more in-depth understanding of critical issues facing their organisations. The questioning process also opens the door to fresh thinking and new insights and ideas.

On the contrary, too many senior executives describe board meetings as like facing an inquisition. An essential boardroom skill for directors, therefore, is not only knowing what questions to ask but how to ask them. Effective board members approach board meetings with a learning mindset. They shape questions that seek to understand avoiding judgmental or accusatory terms and tone. If executives (or, for that matter, fellow board members) feel under attack, it is understandable that they will respond defensively and be, generally, less forthcoming.

This issue goes to the heart of the board's culture. When questioning is handled poorly (or even discouraged), it allows crucial assumptions to go unacknowledged and confidently expressed assertions untested. Prejudice and complacency can persist along with a distorted sense of reality. Conclusions reached may be ill-founded and decisions poor.

Effective board leadership

A third and, arguably, crucial foundation factor is the capability and impact of the person who chairs the board. Effective leadership of boardroom proceedings is arguably the most basic responsibility of the board chair.

Experience tells us, however, that high-quality dialogue does not occur naturally or thrive easily in many boardroom environments. Too many chairs treat each board meeting as a race against the clock. Each agenda item is a hurdle to be cleared as quickly and expeditiously as possible. In the process, rather than acknowledging divergent views, these are batted away, and those expressing them too easily styled as troublemakers.

Dialogue will not flourish unless the chair creates a suitable environment. In part, this means encouraging and supporting honest exploration of ideas or propositions even when rejected by some board members. Individually board members will feel valued and more inclined to engage fully (including being willing to change their mind) when their contributions are treated seriously and built into the thread of the discussion.

Board work is an intellectual rather than a 'hands-on' activity

Many board members, particularly in smaller organisations, never come to terms with this fact. Further, board members come together relatively infrequently. The time between meetings makes it challenging to achieve continuity of thought and to develop dialogue-related teamwork.

Developing the competencies, both group and individual, needed for 'thinking things through' to reach agreed and soundly based conclusions, is central to the development of any high performing board.


William Isaacs. Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together. New York, Doubleday, 1999.

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