Mediocre performers are busy with the best intentions, but the wrong conversations. To separate your organization from the crowd of mediocre performers you must make the best decisions possible. Great decisions only occur in a culture that creates space and time for crucial conversations, and these conversations cannot take place in “unsafe” environments. A room doesn’t have to hostile to be unsafe. In fact, most unsafe conversations are not hostile--they're often the result of an error of omission. Those in the “room” or meeting have not intentionally created and maintained an environment that nurtures free exchange of genuine opinions.
Two things need to be present in order for a conversation to be safe, and if you can establish these elements, then you've created the space for those conversations that will take your board from mediocrity to excellence: 1) Mutual Purpose and 2) Mutual Respect.
Mutual purpose is all about being clear about the intent of the conversation. We often dive headfirst into meetings without pausing at the very beginning to clarify the purpose of what we hope to accomplish with the discussion. How many conversations have you been in where you're asking, "what is the point?"
People who are unclear about the conversation's purpose (is it to inform, decide, criticize, change, congratulate?) will very often sit on the sidelines and may even check out entirely. Being intentional about speaking the purpose of the conversation puts all of the parties, whether that's 2 people or 29 people, on the same page. The more people in the room, the more divergent the focus will be when the purpose is left to the audience to figure out.
Mutual respect involves having a trusting environment. Leaders probably don’t verbalize enough the respect they already have for their staff. Likewise, the front line staff don’t provide feedback on the respect they hold for their leaders. Creating an environment where mutual respect can be openly affirmed goes a long way to assuring all parties. If the mutual respect is lacking, some serious work needs to be done. Its hard work (see mention of crucial conversations above). However take note that this trusting environment leading to mutual respect is possible to build.
Ask yourself these two questions to get this process underway : Am I viewed as a person of integrity? Am I viewed as a person that is highly competent in my role?
Making it safe
We’ve heard it before. “I didn’t feel safe saying that” or “I would have brought that up with him, but the room wasn’t safe”. Is being “safe” a cop out for not having the courage to speak up? Is it some undefinable excuse to cast the blame for poor communication onto others?
No. It’s actually a real thing. And it’s your job to make it happen.
Leaders of meetings will find that when these elements are present, participation is increased and the quality of conversation is enriched. While the meeting leader is not solely responsible for these two elements being present, in their position of authority they can be a significant influence as well as motivator the other participants to keep the room safe. A key leadership practice is to model the way. Teams that operate in safe environments are much more impactful than those who spend their time navigating landmines.
I have a lot of respect for the work you are doing in your community. If you want to have a conversation about getting better at creating a safe room, give me a call.
If you want some hands-on training, consider attending Accelerating Board Performance: Better Conversations, Discussions, and Decisions on June 20th.
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