Dismantling a Lock-In in the Boardroom: An Emotionally Focused Approach to Board Effectiveness

Anyone who has worked on a board has experienced a moment where the progress stops. You might not be sure why or you might blame it on simple disagreements of strategy. We’ve given this halt in progress a name – lock-in. A lock-in is where board members are unable to move forward with their meeting agenda. They are caused by emotional disconnection. Lock-ins are incredibly powerful and damaging to board collaboration, productivity, and effectiveness.

Using an emotionally focused approach, the EmC Strategy, board members are able to dismantle their lock-in by creating new interactional patterns that effect change in the boardroom.

It is a structured approach that is based on the science of adult bonding and attachment that provides a clear map of how board members can expand their emotional responsiveness. If not addressed, board members and the CEO get stuck in absorbing emotional states that cause rigid interactions with each other where they get a lock-in.

To demonstrate, I will share a permitted transcript of a session with the CEO, CFO, Lead Director, and Chairman. Names have been changed to preserve confidentiality. This is their eighth session. Due to the length of the transcript, I’ve divided it into three parts. This is Part 1:

Consultant:        I guess, I’d like to know where do you see your board effectiveness as of right now.

John (CEO):        I see it as evolving to another phase. We are getting more consistent with our focus as a board. It seems like the time that we spend together has a much better quality to it. I feel like from the very first session, the process has helped us to move. I don’t know, maybe you can explain it better, Bill, but it seems like we get in our conflicts but now, we have a little different perspective. The issues still come up and we still see it happening but not to the extent it used to be. It sounds funny but I don’t think I am doing anything that differently. Maybe I pay more attention?

Consultant:        That is a huge thing that you just said, John. Paying a kind of different attention changes everything, right? Paying attention to the way you relate to your board members is like painting your building a whole new color.  That is really different. You said something interesting. You said, that the time you spend with your board has a different quality to it. What does that mean, a different quality?

John (CEO):        It is less flammable. That’s what I can think of. Little things come up here and there but we are able to step over them. Is that your take, Bill?

Bill (Chairman):   Yes, there is so much to be said about this. I don’t really know where to begin, other than to say that we’ve been trying to get a consultant to work with us in the last two years or something like that. We’ve never experienced such an effective, I’ll just speak for myself, such effective results as we have now. All this time, I was trying to reach out to somebody to figure out how to make our board more collaborative and connected. I admit I would get stuck myself as I didn’t know what else to do. It was almost like screaming into the silence and having no answer come back. It was really frustrating. It seems like it was making our problems worse, at least for me. I was trying to articulate but there was some kind of a disconnect.

John (CEO):        It seems like now when I get angry, I can use my own force and divert it back into my emotion.

Consultant:        What I am hearing you say is that you are can take a flammable moment in your interactions and make it not so flammable, right?

John (CEO):        Yes. I guess that’s right.

Consultant:        In other words, you are saying, somehow your board environment has gotten safer. Is that what you are saying?

John (CEO):        Yes.

Consultant:        It feels like we can understand each other more.

John (CEO):        Yes, exactly.

Dan (LD):            Well, I’d like to say that it has become freer to express opinions and not be so afraid to speak up. I, personally, have been afraid to say something. All my interactions with John (CEO) have been tense with fear because I wasn’t sure how to talk to him without getting into conflict. Now, I feel like I don’t have to worry about that much anymore. We have someone who is helping us and I don’t have to be so afraid.

Consultant:        That is very interesting. That’s kind of making you more relaxed in meetings, is that what I am hearing, Dan (LD)?

Dan (LD):            Yes. That’s true. And I am also not as reactive. I don’t take everything that John says so intensely. Yes, sometimes we have a bad moment but ultimately, we are moving up.
Consultant:        That’s really fascinating. That is amazing.

John (CEO):        Well, I see my board is making changes, I don’t really see I am making changes but I see a lot of changes my board is making.

Consultant:        What do you see, John, how do you see the board making changes?

John (CEO):        Just exactly what Dan just said. For example, I get mad at Tom here and Dan would get in between us. And Dan would get very angry with me and that lasts a minute whereas it used to last for hours or days. All of a sudden, I see Dan catching himself.

Consultant:        You see Dan as somehow calmer and not so quick to get alarmed and sort of seeing you as someone who is dangerous, am I getting it?

John (CEO):        Well, it’s funny. Dan is just as quick, he gets infuriated right away but he catches himself within seconds or minutes.

Consultant:        It does not sort of taking over.

John (CEO):        Yes, that’s it.

Consultant:        That’s pretty good. That’s pretty great.

Tom (CFO):        I’d like to add that John has been willing to open up in terms of his emotional landscape that I’ve not realized were so prominent for him.

John (CEO):        Me too.

Tom (CFO):        So, now I see him as a vulnerable person, not like this mean, critical jerk, sorry to say, that I was thinking he was. But he is a vulnerable individual with lots of worries and care. And so, watching what happens with John has changed my brain in terms of how I view him.

John (CEO):        And I understand myself better.  My board understands me better and vice versa. I’ve been able to connect to my primal fears that I had my whole life with some common behaviors that I pull off like withdrawing under stress.

Consultant:        So, you started to understand that there are very clear automatic responses that go into a withdrawer and there is a very good reason for those responses.

John (CEO):        Yes.

Consultant:        I want to go back for a moment. Tom, how do you feel as you say that you are able to understand John more?

Tom (CFO):        I feel good.

Consultant:        Because I am looking at you and you telling me something huge. You are telling me that just in a few sessions, you have actually started to see John in a whole different way. ‘I started to see him not this sort of mean, dangerous person but somebody who might be hurting or who might be worried.’ When you were telling me that, that is huge for you, isn’t it? That is very moving.

Tom (CFO):        Yes, it is.

Consultant:        That is a huge thing for you to go through that change, yes?

Tom (CFO):        Yes. I am just ending up feeling very grateful and extremely relieved because I have been struggling for some time. And I’ve become hopeful that we are on the right track and it is, hopefully, going to continue to be better because of the process that we are doing. I don’t 100% feel safe yet.

Consultant:        You got a little way to go.

Tom (CFO):        Yes. I just feel sometimes that we might revert back.

Consultant:        Tom, you help me. What you are saying to me is that we’ve been so confused and we’ve been so lost that and I’ve been asking for help and I don’t really have an image of how it really going to work, I’ve been struggling for some time, is that right?

Tom (CFO):        Yes, it has been a struggle. And now, after just a few sessions, finally, the relief that I’ve been wanting. Something that will actually help rather than make the situation worse. I’ve been persevering with other methods, but it was making me more distressed. I feel so much more relaxed. I mean, it is embarrassing to admit that it feels a little like you are a little kid and sort of clueless but there is someone showing you the way. And I feel like this is what is happening here.

Consultant:        It is much more clear to you now, is that right?

Tom (CFO):        Yes. Just the fact of having the guidance or the modeling of the open dialogue. When I see you working with John and being so compassionate with him, I see that and say to myself, “Oh, I can do that.”

Consultant:        It is such a relief for you to know that there is a solution to this struggle.

Tom (CFO):        It’s a huge relief.

Consultant:        It is such a relief to know that there is a way out. In fact, the only way out for you was before was to say I am going to leave.

Tom (CFO):        That was one of the things I would do is to say something like that, not to hurt John, although it might seem that I was doing it to hurt him, the thing was that it was the only time I felt safe to say that to myself, I don’t have to be struggling like that anymore. I can leave.

Consultant:        There is a way out.

Tom (CFO):        Yes.

Consultant:        It was almost like you were saying, “There is way out. There is a way out. If I have to, there is a way out.”

Tom (CFO):        Yes.

Consultant:        John, and for you, this might have been very difficult, indeed.

John (CEO):        Horrible. Horrible.

To be continued…

What stands out for me in using this approach is how willing board members are to share their underlying emotions once they feel safe.

The new science of emotional connection teaches us that people are not difficult or “impossible to work with”, they just get stuck in a particular way of dealing with their habitual responses which, unfortunately, lead them to a negative cycle of interaction or a lock-in.

Emotion has control precedence. It wipes out everything else, particularly, in relationships when people depend on each other. When panic sets in, the fear takes over their skills, knowledge, and intellect.

Change starts to occur with a new emotional experience. And, that is what this board is going through – a new emotional experience.

Look for Part 2 of the transcript in our next blog. To learn more about using an emotionally focused approach to board effectiveness, please contact us.