Good Governance: Positive Board Culture in Challenging Times

Diana Baker Freeman
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Creating Culture

We have all heard the reports of rancor in school board meetings — citizens shouting, cursing and other performing other actions we would not normally associate with board room behavior. Politics and foundational beliefs ignite passionate debates and sometimes uncivil behavior toward and among school board members.

What do we mean by culture in the boardroom? Culture is an umbrella term that encompasses the social behavior and norms in human societies. Culture stems from the patterns of learned and shared behavior and beliefs of a particular group. It is important to remember that culture is learned, shared, symbolic, adaptive and dynamic. In other words, you can impact the culture of your board room, and you can change it. 

 

Communications

One of the easiest yet most important ways to establish or change your culture is through your communication practices. Establishing communication standards among board members may seem unnecessary; however, it is essential to establish communication norms and set up meeting protocols in today’s increasingly political climate. 

To keep the standards in front of the board and to easily introduce new members to the communication standards, consider posting them in your board portal. They will be easily accessible for discussion when needed.

Below, we discuss tactics to maintain civility among board members and the administration.

 

Establishing Communication Standards Between Board Members and Staff

  • Discuss expectations: How often and when to communicate. When does the board want reports/updates from the administration?
  • Equity in information: When sharing information with a board, each board member should receive the same message at the same time. A mechanism to communicate the most up to date response is necessary for board members to stay abreast of fluid and fast-moving situations.
  • An appropriate message for the appropriate audience: When board members have concerns, they need to know when to share them — what needs to go to administration and what needs to go to the board president. Remember, the only direct report is the superintendent. The superintendent should convey requests to other administrators.

 

Establishing Communication Standards Between Board Members and the Community

A key factor in community engagement is to let the public know they are welcome. This does not mean a passive allowance of public comment but a true welcoming of community input. Many districts fear community interaction because it might open them up to complaints. Still, often the complainer has a point for improvement even if we don’t like the package in which it is presented. Increasing opportunities for communication can lessen the frustration of stakeholders who feel they are unheard. 

  • Create policies: Publicize them; adhere to them — consistency is the key. When you make exceptions for one, you make it for all. Maintain these practices even when there is no problem.
  • Treat speakers with respect: Do not ever curse or use demeaning language when addressing community members, even if you are tempted to return like for like. Remember, the board is the leader of the educational community and must set the example.
  • Create opportunities for interaction: A community input night can go a long way in allowing the community to be heard. Maximum interaction can be achieved with small, facilitated groups. Using structured questions maintains the focus and creates usable data.
  • Educate the public on the board’s role: This should be an ongoing endeavor. First, educate the board, and then everyone should stick to the playbook.
  • Demonstrate positive leadership: Use communication tools to be uplifting and hopeful. A positive response will best help a community deal with panic. Share messages of hope and compassion. Demonstrate the best of human nature that emerges in times of crisis. Find the good and build on it.

 

Ethics in the Boardroom

Ethics is an excellent place to start when discussing culture in the board room. Nearly every school board maintains a code of ethics. For some boards, it exists in their policies, but they are unaware. Every board needs to familiarize themselves with the code of ethics or adopt one if none exists. A code of ethics creates an opportunity for a board to adhere to high ethical standards from the outset. Civility is rooted in a strong ethical culture. 

Civility and Respect

Public organizations, those paid for with tax dollars, are responsible to the public. Treating stakeholders with respect is the expectation of every public employee. Board members are not employees, yet they are representatives of the organization. How we treat people impacts trust, relationships, support the community gives, and effort from the community and employees.

In a caustic situation, it can be hard to remain respectful. However, regardless of the situation, district representatives — elected, appointed or hired — must remember to remain respectful. Being polite and respectful does not mean losing face; it is taking the higher ground. 

Incivility

While it is easy to spot some uncivil behavior, some behaviors are more subtle. It may involve a member of the public swearing or verbally attacking, but it also may look like condescension or belittling. Often the focus of uncivil behavior is on that coming from the public. Recent examples of the public shouting down, swearing at and threatening board members have caused many board members to resign. Many of these community members are running for boards and bringing their ire into the board room. 

It is equally crucial for board members to demonstrate civility to each other and the administration. Interrupting others, being judgmental and using disrespectful tone or language are examples of more subtle incivility sometimes expressed in board rooms. While these behaviors may be less disruptive, they are equally damaging to relationships as shouting.

Behavior outside the board room also falls under the umbrella of incivility; spreading rumors about fellow board or staff members, sharing information from the confines of a closed session or inciting anger toward opposing board members are all equally damaging to board relationships. 

Remaining respectful during a board meeting does not mean that a board member cannot do his or her due diligence. Questions are warranted. A thorough discussion of all sides of an issue does not have to mean disrespect. Nonprofit board consultant Joan Garry asserts, “Board members are ambassadors. Every question should be asked in the tone and spirit of someone who is deeply committed to the mission. And the CEO / senior staff should feel that.”

There are countless examples of incivility in the boardroom. It may be caused by a sense of individualism, a lack of restraint or self-worth that is either inflated or low. The anonymity of computers and social media fuels the fire of uncivil discourse. Anger, fear and conflicting opinions can incite disrespectful speech in the current politically charged atmosphere. 

Why is This Important?

Incivility can fracture a team and destroy collaboration. It can splinter members’ sense of psychological safety leading to less willingness to be on a board and less robust discussions for those that remain in board service. 

In the end, incivility will deflate the confidence of both the team and the administration. A feeling of broken trust will be present even in those not targeted by those behaviors.

Incivility erodes the helpfulness of a board and trickles down to staff and students. Board interactions should never be a cause of degraded educational experience for students.

 

Practical Tools To Improve Board Relationships

Improving board relationships begins with a common vocabulary and a set of standards. Creating operating procedures if none exist creates a baseline expectation. The operating procedures should include a code of ethics. 

Many organizations post the code of ethics in a prominent place in the board room or on the board agenda. Beginning each meeting with the discussion of one standard from the code of ethics keeps it in the forefront of everyone’s attention and demonstrates intent to the public. If a board member strays from civil behavior, the board has a tool to discuss standards so that the discussion is not just an accusation.

Board members should assume positive intent and realize that some people are unfamiliar with decorum in public meetings. Training on ethical behavior and civil discourse is available, and boards should avail themselves of it. Creating a culture in the boardroom is a deliberate act. As community leaders, civil boardrooms may lead to a more civil and productive community. What kind of board do you want to have? What are you doing to contribute to a positive culture?

Tools for a Civil Boardroom

  1.  Slow down and be present in your private life. Coming to the board meeting in a relaxed frame of mind fosters more positive communication.
  2.  Listen to the voice of empathy. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes may help you respond positively rather than in anger. 
  3.  Keep a positive attitude. It’s essential to assume positive intent. Other board members want the best for the district even if you disagree on what that is; finding common ground is helpful.
  4.  Respect others and grant them plenty of validation. Always be respectful in your comments and conversation. To encourage civility, thank the speaker for their thoughtful comments or tone. Build on the positive.
  5.  Disagree graciously and refrain from arguing. Disagreements are inevitable in a boardroom; extending grace to other speakers and stating your position based on data or facts helps others hear your argument.
  6.  Get to know the people around you. Public meetings allow for little conversation outside of the board’s business, but taking time to learn about your fellow board members can ease tensions and result in a better discussion about business topics.
  7.  Pay attention to the small things. Politeness counts. Thanking speakers for their presentations and attending to civility and kindness is the foundation of positive board culture.
  8.  Ask, don’t tell. When speaking to administrators, fellow board members, or stakeholders, it is best to frame needs as a request rather than a demand. 

Impacting the culture of a board is a slow process, but it can be done. As educational and community leaders, it is incumbent on boards to set an example of politeness and respect. It may seem futile to create a culture when elections change the makeup of the board yearly; using a board portal, such as Diligent Communityto codify decisions and procedures creates a foundation for the board to move forward consistently. The legacy you build in terms of positive culture deserves to remain in place to ensure that generations of boards following you will be able to build on this underpinning. 

 

 

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Diana Baker Freeman
Diana Baker Freeman is a governance specialist with many years and varied experience in board development. She holds an MS in Education Leadership, teaching in both public schools and at the university level. Her experience in classrooms led her to be an enthusiastic advocate for education. After being elected as a school board member she became intrigued with the field of governance, developing a deeper understanding of the role of board member, and how that could lead to improved educational outcomes. As a public school trustee, Diana was nominated and accepted to the yearlong leadership academy, Leadership TASB, through the Texas Association of School Boards, graduating that course as a Master Trustee. Diana became a Board Development Consultant for the Texas Association of School Boards and later as an independent consultant. She has led boards through strategic planning, goal setting, as well as ethics training and examination of roles and responsibilities of board members. She has presented at various state-wide, regional, and national conferences and developed online training for TASB as well as the Southern Regional Training Consortium. She brings her experience to BoardDocs/Diligent in order to further her work in the field of governance.