Board Dynamics

Avoiding Unspoken Issues – Part 2

Published: October 9, 2012

Read Time: 5 minutes

Unspoken issues

In the first article of this series I offered an ad hoc research sample from the Better Boards Conference which suggested that we may all have an elephant in the board room that we are not prepared to discuss, or may lack the tools to address.

I also outlined some common themes of unspoken issues. In the second article in this series, I will discuss some general tactics for avoiding unspoken issues undermining board performance.

The faster we face unspoken issues the easier they are to resolve. Here are some general tips at avoiding the unspoken issue becoming a source of dysfunction.

Start as you mean to proceed

The arrival of a new CEO, new chair, or new board member is a great opportunity to start afresh. Use the board strategy continuum identified in my previous article as a basis for discussion of how the board wishes to operate.

Recognise the board is a team

The board should consider adopting management team frameworks to enhance performance. Too often the board reviews frameworks for their management team but not themselves. There are many useful models, such as the various theories on the key elements of being a high performance team or Lencioni’s “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team “. What all the good models do is break down complex group dynamics into a simplified set of behaviours that can be measured and monitored in an objective way. There is no one best model, but it is a good idea to choose one and stick with it for at least a year so you can monitor your improvements.

Make the covert overt

If the issue is not in the open it cannot be dealt with. As the management maxim states “if you cannot measure it, you cannot manage it” similarly, if you do not name it, you cannot resolve it. If you believe there are unspoken issues, ask if there matters you may be missing or inadvertently being insensitive to.

Embrace difference. Difference is good!

The whole point of a board meeting is to explore different ideas in a constructive way and arrive at a better decision.

It is therefore important to explore the different opinions and ideas. A past mentor, Rev Dr Alan Cole, used to say he only read books that he disagreed with; because that was the only way he would learn. One aspect of being a high performance team is the ability to give and receive feedback. A high performing leadership team will explore differing views recognising that each view is proffered positively with the intent of achieving the vision.

Avoid ESP and ask the question!

Some people base their relationship on a belief in extra sensory perception (ESP). ESP belief is manifest in the comment “If he/she really loved me then they would know what I need, I should not have to tell them!” Unfortunately ESP belief occurs at board level; “If management/board really understood the plan they would…” We assume rather than ask or tell. We know that few of us actually have ESP; so be courageous and ask questions, share your doubts or make your expectations clear.

To ask the question “I do not understand why we think this is a good idea?” often produces a rich discussion. Again, always ask in a respectful way, recognising that each view is offered with the intent of achieving the vision.

Do not let the sun go down on your anger.

Don’t let things fester. We will not always agree. Understanding the reasons for disagreement strengthens future decisions and discussions. If you are really unhappy with a decision, then say why. If you really cannot agree with the rest of the board on a regular basis maybe you are the only one in step and it is time to march elsewhere.

Involve everyone in discussion.

Ensuring everyone has the chance to contribute to each discussion even if it is to say, “My point has already been made by someone else”. Ask the quiet participant if there is something they are concerned the board may be missing. Thank the dominant participant but ensure they allow room for others.

Externalise the issue and use objective data.

It is often easier to discuss issues if they are on paper. For example discussing how board and management should do strategy together is easier using a tool such as the board continuum (described in the previous article) rather than from different unspoken ideas in each board members head. Discussing how to deliver or improve a particular service offering is much easier with an agreed process map of the service in front of everyone. Discussion of the client experience is only possible with reliable satisfaction data. Use objective data and evidence wherever possible when making decisions.

Perform regular health checks

Annual reviews of board performance, the strategic continuum, and our understanding of what our vision means today, is an important discipline. Every Board should have an agreed performance evaluation system whether it’s whole of board or individual director performance evaluation. It is often helpful to have an external person facilitate such discussion. Every time a new person joins the board, the understanding will vary. Their fresh insight may offer new possibilities on long held beliefs.


Just as champion athletes have to constantly work on basic technique so as to not undermine their performance, so too must boards constantly monitor their discussion and decision processes to ensure effective leadership.


Make-A-Wish Australia
Past Chief Executive Officer

Gerard was previously CEO of Make-A-Wish Australia. Prior to this appointment Gerard led some of Australia’s largest NFPs including Vision Australia. He has served on many government and industry bodies. He was AIM Professional Manager of the Year (Qld) 2001 and PM’s Employer of the Year 2006. Gerard chairs the National Roundtable of Nonprofit Organisations and Corporate and Governance Committee, Vision 2020.

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