Often times a board leader will call for my help when they have a problem to solve. They’ve run into a wall or can’t agree on a solution to move forward. Whether it splits the board evenly or it’s one against six – it always halts progress. Everything stops.
But it doesn’t have to. If you know how to work with emotions, you can stop the negative cycle from forming and start seeing the emotion behind the bigger picture that is driving the drama. You don’t have to change everything in your board function, you just have to change the core organizing elements. The core organizing element is how your board directors tune into their emotion and the emotional signals they send to each other.
Emotion is what drives the interaction. It literally moves board directors in very specific ways. Emotion comes from the Latin word, “emovere”, means to move. So, it is supposed to move you to action, but it’s fast.
When you know how to work with emotion, you can help your board succeed in ways that seem impossible right now. I will illustrate what exactly this means with an example that a colleague shared with me.
A board decides to sell a portion of its company. Because of the size of the deal, shareholders’ approval was not required. However, one director, Tom, demanded that they did. This created a lot of distress for the rest of the board.
Tom and the board kept going back and forth trying to make their case. Their arguing became so intense that it seemed like they were getting more and more sucked into a negative cycle.
The most common negative cycle is when one person starts complaining, criticizing and becoming very angry, and the other defending, distancing and stonewalling. One starts pushing and the other starts backing off, becoming disconnected from each other.
Tom and the board was getting more and more infused with anxiety and their way of communication quickly became pushing for connection through complaining, criticizing and blaming each other, setting a negative pattern into motion.
Whenever Tom would share his fear, (REACHING) it would come out as a demand or an attack which would trigger his board and push them away. The same was true for the rest of the board.
Whenever the board would express their fear of losing the deal, (REACHING) it would come out as criticism and blame (PUSHING) which would trigger Tom and push him away.
So, each side would get more and more anxious. When we get infused with anxiety, terrified with all kinds of negative affect, it is very difficult for us to send clear emotional signals to each other. When we feel helpless and afraid, we look scary and angry to the other person.
It’s like speaking into a gramophone, where the person is saying, “I am really scared”, it comes out as “I am really scary”.
When we know how to tune into our emotions and understand what is it that we need, we can send clear coherent signals to each other be more effective in our message.
One of the things that the new science of emotional connection tells us is that getting a cue of rejection or abandonment from people we depend on is a danger. When directors sense that from their board you see perfectly educated, intelligent, well-functioning adults become very agitated. Their body posture changes and their voice goes up. The minute they start showing these signs, it triggers a danger signal to the other directors’ mammalian brain which perpetuate a negative cycle.
So Tom and the rest of the board were definitely disconnected and stuck. Their negative pattern was actually preventing them from moving forward with the deal.
The board decided to contact Tom’s friend, who happen to be a retired Judge, in hopes that he persuade Tom to agree with the board. However, instead of persuading Tom or the Board, the Judge started off by creating safety for both sides, similar to what we do in our Board/Team Dynamics Process:
Move 1: He stayed in the present moment by slowing down the interaction, gathering information, and hearing each person’s view without judgement. This helped Tom and the rest of the directors be more clear on what is that each side needed to feel emotionally safe. He did this several times over and over again to gain clarity and allow directors to process their emotions.
Move 2: He validated each person’s concerns and fears. This is an important step in creating emotional safety and calming emotions down. No one has to be the bad guy. He did not blame anyone or try to find the bad guy. Instead, he acknowledged Tom’s concerns of protecting his credibility as well as the board’s fear of losing the deal. Both, had valid concerns.
Effective validation creates an alliance, legitimizes people experience and provides a safe way of furthering their exploration of their experience. Saying something like, “That makes sense” or “Yes, I can see how…”affirms their experience.
Even in the moment of a heated discussion, just validating people’s concerns calms emotions down and decreases self-protection in the interaction of distressed board directors. By validating, the Judge enhances the secure alliance and recognizes that each party is entitled to his or her experience.
Move 3: When the Judge talked to Tom, his tone of voice was calm, his facial expression suggested openness and relaxation. This calming effect sends a message to the brain that Tom was not alone.
Once emotions came down, Tom was able to be more clear on what really happened to him. What really hurt was not that the board did not agree with him, it was that his concerns did not matter. That triggered a panic in him. In Tom’s view, the answer to key bonding questions of “Do I matter?” was a resounding “NO” and that really hurt him.
A brain study by Naomi Eisenberger at UCLA has pointed out that when we talk about hurt feelings in relationships as a metaphor, but in fact we are bonding social animals, so hurt feelings are not a metaphor.
Particularly in your most important relationships, the evidence is, if you look at people in a brain scan machine, getting a cue that you are about to be rejected, excluded, or criticized by someone you depend on is processed in the same part of the brain and exactly the same way as physical pain.
That makes perfect sense, because, for a mammal who depends on calling others and have them come, feeling rejection or abandonment are danger cues. Your brain doesn’t really distinguish that much between getting massive rejection on your board director’s face and stepping on a nail. So when a board director says, “It hurt,” I take them literally. It hurts. This is how our body tunes into connection and disconnection.
The same was true for the rest of the board. When they expressed their concerns of losing the deal, Tom rejected it, sending the message, that their concerns did not matter to Tom, which triggered and sent them into panic.
Once everyone regained their emotional balance, their emotional brain was able to relax and now they were physiologically able to consider new ideas.
The Judge proposed to have two votes: The first vote for the approval of the deal which was unanimously passed and the second vote was for doing the deal without the shareholders’ approval which gave Tom a way to abstain.
This option addressed Tom’s need to protect his credibility and the board’s need to move forward with the deal without going to shareholders and jeopardizing the deal.
Again, they did not need shareholder’s approval but this option helped Tom to meet his attachment needs – that his opinion mattered to the board, that he mattered. This allowed the board to move forward with the deal without jeopardizing it.
This particular board was lucky to have the talent and the experience of the Judge who knew how to create safety and reconnect the board to get them back on track. But you don’t have to rely on finding that right person.
The new science of emotional connection and the Board/Team Dynamics Process provides a clear map on how board directors can tune into their emotion, ask for what they need, and provide the responses that would make them more connected where they start to feel safer and pull each other closer, trusting each other more.
“The most productive teams are the ones that have the greatest harmony and positivity.” – Vanessa Druskat at the University of New Hampshire, researcher on teams and productivity Tom’s board came to a productive solution after getting stuck. That’s the beauty of emotional connection, you can use it to get over any hurdle in your way. When you can stop and address what is behind the singular conflict, you open up new solutions and possibilities. It’s okay to have a conflict or a disconnection, it’s how you manage those disconnections that really makes the difference. Unlocking the potential of your board is a simple matter of understanding emotion.
Part 3 Dismantling a Lock-In in the Boardroom: An Emotionally Focused Approach to Board Effectiveness