My board is too nice

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At a recent family party, as we enjoyed summer pasta salad and delicious cheeses, a guest and I chatted about Jurassic Parliament. We were discussing boards of directors when she made this off-hand comment: “My board is too nice.”

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Due to the imminent arrival of the birthday cake I didn’t have a chance to go any deeper with her, but I’ve thought a lot about that observation since. What does it mean to have a board that is too nice, and what does such a board need?

We have to start with our deeply grounded and inescapable nature as social beings. As Clay Shirky says, “Human beings are social creatures — not occasionally or by accident but always.” Despite the heroic images of independent action that infuse the American imagination, the truth is that we live, breathe, work and thrive or survive in group settings. This means, to my mind, that an emotional preference for group harmony is innate and unsurprising. As infants, we are completely dependent on others for nurturance and survival. As toddlers and children, we quickly learn how to keep our caregivers happy. Throughout life we cannot do very much without assistance, support and acceptance from others.

The lessons of groupwork that we learn, in order to survive under these conditions, are not a bad thing. If everybody were dedicated to doing exactly what he or she felt like at every moment, neither work nor play nor family life could achieve very much. The problem comes when we have learned our lessons too well. Someone who is always willing to sacrifice personal preference to the group’s needs, or who is too unsure of himself to state an independent opinion, runs the risk of losing the vital core of selfhood. There are adults who are so well-socialized that they cannot bear to disappoint or antagonize others in their social circle. They shrink from difference and find it disagreeable, sometimes even paralyzing.

It’s this tendency, I think, that can lead to the “too nice” phenomenon. It’s inherent in the nature of any board that the members will have differing opinions about what actions will serve the mission and the organization best. If the members recognize this fact and accept the inevitable differences that arise as a normal part of group work, the board can consider its alternatives fairly and make wise decisions. If everyone is committed to not rocking the boat, the range of options considered will be smaller and more limited, and the organization is likely to suffer in consequence.

Board leaders and board members alike should ask themselves the key “reality check” question: are important substantive issues being dodged, sidetracked, or glossed over?

A wise leader will foster good interpersonal relations in the board room. At the same time, she will create a climate in which everyone feels free to express unusual or contrary opinions without fearing hostility or emotional rejection. It’s not always easy, but we can learn to be nice to each other without being “too nice.”