Is Your Board Room a Safe Space? Here Are Ten Suggestions That Work

inquiry and transparency intentional practices roles and responsibilities Mar 13, 2023
Is Your Board Room a Safe Space? Here Are Ten Suggestions That Work


There are many research papers on “How a CEO Can Create Psychological Safety in the Room” (see for example, Timothy Clark’s article in Harvard Business Review in January).


These are important but focus on the power dynamic between the CEO and staff. For the Chair it is more of a “primus inter pares” situation where facilitation and inclusion are critical. There’s a power dynamic in every room. So how do you control that dynamic? How do you improve Board culture?

Here are 10 suggestions (taken from Clarke and adapted) to create high levels of psychological safety to promote the unencumbered exchange of ideas and inclusive discussion.


1. Assign someone else to conduct the meeting. If you find that it is too challenging to manage a meeting to ensure equitable and safe contributions, let someone else do it. You can then observe and work with board members between meetings to improve contributions and feelings of security.


2. Don’t sit at the head of the table. Mix it up — don’t allow people to get comfortable in designated spots. Reconfigure the physical space, including your personal proximity to the same people.


3. Create warmth and informality. Use your emotional intelligence to convey warmth and encourage collaboration. Pay attention to the slightest signals you send, including your gestures, facial expressions, and vocal characteristics.


4. Model acts of vulnerability. The quality of the clash of ideas hinges on the permission and respect others sense through your behavior. Openly challenge yourself. Ask for help. Admit what you don’t know. Express your uncertainty.


5. Stimulate inquiry before advocacy. If you move from asking questions to advocating your position too soon, it signals the end of the discussion.

There are two forms of inquiry: explanatory (use data to understand) and exploratory (use data to make assumptions and predictions). Explanatory inquiry helps improve execution, while exploratory inquiry drives innovation. Ask thoughtful questions surrounded by compassionate curiosity.



6. Reward challenges to the status quo. “Tell me why I might be wrong. What are my blind spots.” Then pause and let everyone sit in the silence until the first person is brave enough to challenge you. “Thank you. Let’s explore your perspective.”


7. Push back with humor and enthusiasm. “May I arm wrestle you on that point?” which always elicits a smile and positive response. This approach also takes the emotional edge off high-stakes discussions. If you can disagree without being autocratic, it leaves the discussion open for others to do the same.


8. Buffer strong personalities. Chances are you have introverts, extroverts, and strong personalities in the room. Introverts may prefer to process quietly and nonverbally, whereas extroverts may relish verbal, public processing. Contain strong personalities, especially those who lack self-awareness. “Let’s ensure everyone’s fair share of airtime on this topic.” Create a shame- and embarrassment-free environment.


9. Listen and pause. When you listen and pause, you’re communicating respect in an unmistakable way. You’re telling the person that they deserve to be seen, heard, and understood. There is perhaps no more powerful way to validate another human being. Don’t let others fill the pause.


10. Give highly targeted praise and recognition. Instead of, “I appreciate that insight,” make it targeted by explaining “why” -- how the contribution is valuable, which both reinforces the behavior and coaches the individual to engage in deeper analysis.


Take the opportunity to design the dynamic.


What are your main “pain points” dealing with Board culture?

What advice would be most helpful to you?
And we always assume that you are asking for a friend!


Get in touch. We’ll address your questions and concerns in an upcoming blog post.


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P.S. May I ask a tiny favour? Would you mind sharing this blog with one person? I would love it. You can post the links in your Facebook Groups, LinkedIn or even send an email.

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