How Managing Emotions Can Improve Board Effectiveness

Traditionally, board effectiveness has been seen as having a direct correlation with governance or strategy. While these two elements are important for boards to perform, what is often overlooked is the effect of the human condition on productivity.

A board is simply a group of people with emotions. When emotions are ignored, companies risk low performance and disappointing results.

Based on the new science of adult bonding and neuroscience research, we finally understand what goes on when people form emotional bonds with each other, how important these bonds are and how the need for connection is wired into our brain as the most basic motivator we have. Simply, put when we are emotionally connected, we perform better.

Here are 3 tips to get you started with emotional connection in the boardroom.

1. Validate differences. During the Allergan hostile takeover attempt by Valeant, Mike Gallagher, Lead Director of Allergan, incorporated a mandatory engagement process by which each board member was given an opportunity to voice their opinion. When there were differences, directors were reminded to respect and validate those views. A study by Baumeister and Leary shows that when people feel validated, their cognitive functioning improves and they feel more connected to the group.

“When we are emotionally connected, we perform better.”

2. Reframe the problem in terms of attachment. At one of the audit review meetings, directors were getting into a heated argument. One director stopped and said, “Can we slow down a bit. I can see that this topic is very important to everyone because we all care about the company and about our employees. I can hear that we are getting stressed out about our PR strategy and I just want to say that we all want the company to succeed.” When the problem is framed in terms of care instead of not caring, it slowed down emotions and helped people be open to other opinions. Reframing cultivates compassion and contact rather than mistrust and alienation.

3. Stop a negative cycle by eliminating the “bad guy”. It is so easy to see one or two directors as the ones to blame for tension, but the real culprit is the negative cycle. When directors miss each other’s cues or their signals get distorted, the board moves into a negative cycle. It starts when one director feels worried and reaches out to another, but it come across as critical or accusatory. That director then feels attacked and becomes defensive and standoffish. This leads to distance and increased tension on the board. Negative cycles start with the smallest gestures and can snowball out of control quickly. One board I worked with named their cycle the “Clash of the Titans”, and after learning to recognize it, they were able to move from clashing to standing next to each other fighting the negative cycle.

Boards are comprised with highly intelligent people. When a board is dysfunctional, it is rarely because of their incompetence; rather, it is because they are disconnected. Once their emotional blockages are cleared and directors reconnect, board members can reach their full potential and address challenges together, becoming more effective than ever before.


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