“Maybe we shouldn’t stop at a board self evaluation,” Terry, the newest board member offered. “Why not give some feedback to our Chair as well?” Everyone held their breath and watched for Chair Chris’s reaction. He had been known to take things personally in the past and at times signs of defensiveness leaked out if others didn’t agree with his views. “Good idea!” said Chris. “If we want to continuously improve as a board leadership team, it makes sense for the Chair to get feedback on his performance. Are you proposing an addition to our board evaluation policy?”

This vignette articulates the angst we can sometimes feel when broaching touchy issues, exposing personal agendas, probing for the root of problems, or tackling any other uncomfortable situation. We’ve all experienced scenarios where we knew tough questions needed to be. Even Warren Buffet, renowned investor and veteran of 19 corporate boards, admits that “All too often I was silent when management made proposals that I judged to be counter to the interests of shareholders.” He acknowledges that it takes courage to speak up.

Jim Brown, author of the governance best seller The Imperfect Board Member, put this angst into perspective: “As leaders, we have to get over the discomfort of doing the right thing.” What is the right thing? Putting the best interests of the organization and its shareholders ahead of our own feelings, angst, egos and, God forbid, personal agendas. After all, that is what we agreed to when we accepted a board or trustee position–that is our legal duty.

If you’re thinking “easier said than done,” let me remind you of a few tactics for more consistently entering the discomfort zone with a motive of doing the right thing:

  • Build trust. The kind of vulnerability-based trust that allows people to say things like “I’m sorry,” or “I need help,” or “I don’t know,” comes not only from EQ or emotional intelligence, but is also cultivated by relationship building. Getting together for meals in advance of a board meeting is a start. Intentionally conducting opener discussions wherein everyone shares something about themselves is better. For example, have everyone share:
    • one thing you’re celebrating
    • one thing you’re working on
    • one struggle you’re experiencing.
  • Set expectations. Taking time to have all board members contribute to a list of desired board behaviors is a great way to articulate expectations. This will reinforce mundane but important norms such as punctuality and preparation as well as equally important concepts such as “it’s okay to disagree,” “we will choose not to be offended if others differ,” and “don’t hold back–say what you have to say at the board table, not in the parking lot.”
  • Rehearse. We can prepare for the worst while expecting the best by anticipating how we will deal with common board pitfalls. We know of boards who rehearse how the board will handle situations such as: board members prescribing operational solutions rather than setting policy directions; board members being approached by staff, customers or members who are trying to do an end run around the CEO, etc. Rehearsing equips board members, reinforces expectations and illuminates related board policies.
  • Choose your words carefully.
    • Refer to the problem and not the person. Instead of “Ryan is disorganized,” try “it’s difficult to be adequately prepared for board meetings when we receive the board package the day before the meeting.”
    • Describe the impact of the behavior. “When the package is sent late, my stress level increases; I have to make schedule adjustments in order to prepare.”
    • Use phrases that help ease into a topic. “Moose on the table” or “elephant in the room” can be used to name a touchy subject people have been reluctant to broach. Asking, “may I have an umbrella of mercy?” is a way of saying, “I’m about to propose an out-of-the-box idea and I’d appreciate you hearing me out.”
  • Give yourself and others grace. Giving yourself grace might look like this: “I could be totally off-base on this and, if so, I apologize in advance, but my perception is.…” In other words, you’re not blaming anyone, you’re simply explaining your reaction in a gentle way. Giving others grace is taking the position that everyone makes mistakes, has a bad day, and is entitled to their own opinion. It’s choosing to be accepting of those who are different from you. You can accept someone and their opinions without agreeing with them.

Of course, these are only a few suggestions, and you can likely think of many more tactics to add to this list. I guess if I had to choose just two methods for successfully entering discomfort zones they would be intentionality and humility. Intentionality captures all of the disciplines I’ve described above. Humility is the self-effacing demeanor that turns away wrath; it is evident in attributing success to the team and in taking personal responsibility when mistakes occur. It is also, according to Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, the trait that separates Level 5 leaders from Level 4 leaders.

Below are resources I’ve found helpful in improving my batting average for effectively entering the discomfort zone when the need arises. May you too experience success in “getting over the discomfort of doing the right thing.”

  • Lencioni, Patrick. (2002) The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. United Stated. Jossey-Bass.
  • Scott, Susan. (2004) Fierce Conversations. Berkley Trade
  • Stanfield, R. Brian – General Editor. The Art of Focused Conversation. Canada. New Society Publishers
  • Covey, Steven R. (2006) The Speed of Trust. Simon & Schuster