This blog is a summarized version of our article, Dealing with the Shock of Board Distress: An Emotionally Focused Approach – if you would like to read the article in full, click here.
Dysfunctional boards and unsafe board relationships are the aftereffects caused by violation of trust, violation of core values, board discourse, or other shock. When we are stressed, our need for attachment intensifies. However, when the trauma is caused by the person with whom we seek attachment, such as our board directors or the CEO, a “violation of human connection” further perpetuates the trauma. It destroys our very sense of safety and security that serves as the main building blocks of emotional connection. It damages our connection, and makes the relationship dangerous.
To some extent, distressed board directors have similar symptoms as boards that deal with a lack of effectiveness and productivity. This is evident by disengagement, lack of progress, inability to address challenges and move forward with the agenda. According to a Stanford study, 39% of board directors report that their fellow directors derail conversations and get off topic during board meetings. The board feels disconnected, ineffective and lacks productivity. Board directors become more concerned with protecting themselves rather than working together in protecting the company. Boards become stuck in negative cycles which cause unproductive work environments. In addition, we’ve found that the aftereffects of distress can actually increase board distress if not addressed. Emotions are contagious. The effects of distress are so universal that they engulf and erode even the most positive board relationships and infect company cultures with a toxic environment.
The results of distress are multifaceted and affect many aspects of board function. The indicators may include: suspicion of other’s viewpoints, not being cooperative, apprehension to proposals, closed-mindedness, disengagement, withdrawal from the group, aggression, or board directors not being approachable; behaviors characterized by avoidance and numbing of emotional responses. Distress is incredibly common on boards. Thirty six percent of board directors strongly believe that their board is not open to new points of view, and 32% have a low level of trust in their fellow board directors.
These indicators and behaviors all add to the intensity of board conflict and disconnection. The inability to regulate emotions is shown in research as being the primary, if not the core, issue in dealing with trauma or extensive distress. In board relationships, negative emotions, especially fear evoked by having trust violated by people who you rely, tends to be intense and compelling. The interactions in such board environment tends to be more towards flight, fight or freeze responses.
Boards that experience disconnection or trauma tend to be stuck in a particularly intense negative cycle of distance, defense, and distrust. In addition, board directors tend to reinforce and increase behaviors of disconnection and distress. The vicious cycle is then set in motion and prevent boards from moving forward. It is not surprising that board dynamics has been identified as one of the most significant aspects in corporate governance.
Board Dynamics as the Key to Recovery
Board dynamics have a direct impact on board productivity and its effectiveness. Research shows when directors create a strong bond with each other, they collaborate and support each other which provides them the strength and ability to deal with the stress of trauma. When board directors are accessible and responsive to each other they create and reinforce the support, safety, and connection. Thus, addressing board distress from an emotionally focused approach makes it natural and an effective strategy to deal with distress, reconnecting board members together.
Research shows that the main effect of trauma is the loss of ability to regulate our own negative emotions. Thus, if board directors have supportive board relationships, they are much more likely to turn to each other for help regulate negative emotions in a way to manage symptoms such as disengagement and withdrawal.
The experience of emotional safety fosters new connections for learning that heals pain. For example, when board directors can create emotional connection they learn that when they disagree, it does not mean that they are being disloyal or betraying the board, but in fact, they become a source of comfort and a “secure base” for each other. Such secure connections and a sense of safety promotes healing and helps trauma to dissipate without rage or residual irritability. As safe emotional engagement becomes predominantly evident, those that were traumatized can be more “present” and more open to positive healing experiences and less immersed in the past.
In the safety of the boardroom, reprocessing difficult and painful experiences can build a powerful bond between board directors. For example, when responding with empathy, the process of sharing not just heals the trauma but creates emotional engagement which is necessary for healthy board function. Emotional connection improves communication, collaboration, and board focus. It is also helps board directors learn how to reframe traumatic events in a way without attacking or blaming each other, thus rebuilding trust and strengthening the bond.
To illustrate, here is an excerpt from a longer session in working with a board to address the emotional disconnection. Cathryn is the Board Chair and Greg is the CEO.
Cons: You say, we must be behind the wall, we have to be cautious, protect ourselves, we can’t trust you because you pushed us away.
Cathryn: Well, it’s more than that. We’ve been let down when we shouldn’t have been, especially, not by those who are supposed to protect us, like our CEO.
Cons: I hear you, this is sort of like a huge abyss in the middle of the relationship. That was absolutely awful for you?
Cathryn: It was awful, it was awful for the rest of the board, it was final.
Cons: Have you had a chance to sit down and just tell Greg what happened and how it affected you and the board when he didn’t show up for that investors meeting? How completely disappointing and embarrassing it was for you?
Greg: No, not really.
Cathryn: I thought we did. You took everything we built and just threw it away. We nearly lost everything that we worked for.
Cons: Is this hurting you as you talk about it right now? This is what keeps that wall up.
Cathryn: It was the final brick on the wall, too. After years, we went through a lot of things together.
Cons: It feels final, but you are all still here.
Cathryn: Because I think Greg has a lot of talent and I want to grow and continue developing our company and the board. Greg is an awesome CEO.
Cons: Tell me more about that.
Cathryn: He is a good CEO and a good person, I have respect for him, I just can’t trust him the way I should and he has pushed that level. And now, it feels like we should flip that switch and give it back.
Cons: I think what you are saying is that your feelings are complicated and vast. Can you help me? I think what you are saying is that you don’t just want to walk away from this. You do want to learn, but when you think about risking and actually letting your guard down with Greg again, all kinds of dreadful feelings and fears come up because you remember that day when he didn’t show up. Am I getting it? Am I sort of getting it?
The session goes on as Greg and Cathryn address the distress that has plagued their boardroom for years. The goal is to rebuild the trust and develop the relationship by introducing new bonding moments.
It is important to recognize that disconnections are inevitable – they happen in the healthiest relationships and in the strongest boards. Understanding how to reconnect is what makes boards more effective. A more secure and connected board relationship can help board directors and the CEO on many levels; it can help them address challenges, process traumatic experiences together more effectively and re-establish a sense of safe connection with each other and the executive team. In 1992, Perry et al., conducted a study of the impact of traumatic experiences had on patients. The study found that it was not the extent of the injury that predicted the development of the post-traumatic stress disorder but rather the amount of perceived social support that was available to those victims. Attachment theory reinforces the study by showing that when we feel connected with people that are important to us, we have much more strength and confidence to deal with stress and difficult times.
With the BDP, you can take the 36% of board directors who are not open to new points of view and expand their perspective. You can take the 32% of directors who don’t trust their colleagues and rebuild their relationships to reintroduce essential trust. This is all done by addressing the emotional component in board distress. The Board Dynamics Process (BDP) is based on the new science of emotional connection and serves as a clear map for board directors and the CEO reconnect and reestablish strong board relationship – “a safe haven and a secure base” – for them to address the challenges together in an ever-changing, competitive world of business.
If you are interested in learning more about handling board distress, contact us.