The fear of losing face in boardroom meeting can often lead executives to stay quiet on issues when they speak up. This can mean important issues are not being dealt with. Paul Donovan explores the telltale signs of executives avoiding issues and what HR can do to stop it.
While things might look sophis
ticated in the boardroom of
your company, it is possible
that games are being played that
might fit better at the schoolyard
These games can be hard to pick
among the suits and grown-up lan
guage. to add to the mix; they are
being played without the group
acknowledging to themselves that
they are being played. So discussing
the games is actually out of bounds.
The great problem with this sce
nario is that the games have many
and far-reaching unwanted conse
quences for the group and the organ
isation that they lead.
What are these games?
Your senior executive group may be
using certain phrases or approaches in
their meetings to trigger a strategy
that enables them to avoid threaten
ing situations. While they may be
effective at achieving that end, these
strategies are also likely to be creating
frustration or resentment in some of
the group. I have listed three below.
There are others.
“Let’s not have an argument now
…” Just when things start to get a
bit heated someone with power in
the room may saysomething like
this. It may sound grown-up and
very reasonable but statements such
as this may represent nothing more
than an unwillingness to have neg
ative feelings in the boardroom. The
expression of those negative feel
ings may appear as a threatening
lack of control by whoever has
power in the room. In an attempt
to avoid the situation, the person
with power may unilaterally shut
down the conversation while
appearing to serve the group.
“Silence is agreement …” For
some executive groups this partic
ular example of “meeting ground
rules” may seem an efficient way
to move through an agenda, but in
our experience it rarely leads to
robust dialogue within executive
groups. Rather, it becomes per
mission for the group not to
explore their own silence.
Gaps, pauses and hesitations are
a rich source of information within
a group about how the participants
are processing the issues discussed.
Within these brief silences can
often lay the unspoken questions
and challenges that the group
requires to create in-depth investi
gation of some organisational
issues. Therefore, rather than inter
preting silence as the signal to
move on, it may be an important
trigger to slow down the meeting and provide the group with a little
more space to voice the thoughts
that are more difficult to say.
“This is too tactical for us, we
should move on …” It sounds very
“executive” indeed, but sometimes
the intention to stay strategic can cam
ouflage the fear of getting down to
brass tacks. If getting real data into
the conversation is going to be threat
ening for one or more members, then
it is likely that the whole group will
support a strategy to stay general in
Here are some examples. Exactly
how many times has the service group
complained about how the salespeo
ple talk to them? What specific part
of the email sent out by the Financial
Controller created frustration in the
sales teams? Specifically which sales
teams have brought the average
growth rate down and what can we
learn from that?
Sometimes questions such as these
can threaten the group and, if so, the
group may unconsciously agree to
avoid the discomfort.
Why are these games played?
First, our research suggests these
games are played largely because they
are effective in enabling the group to
avoid the experience of feeling threat
ened, embarrassed or of some mem
ber losing face. Generally speaking,
these feelings are a “no go” zone for
executives and they are definitely not
ones to let your team members know
you are having.
As a consequence, rather than endure the discom
fort of having those feelings, the group engages in
strategies to avoid them altogether.
Fundamentally then, the games are played
because of a lack of emotional intelligence. The
inability of the group to become aware of their feel
ings and manage them without enacting a reac
tionary strategy is at the essence of this issue and at
the heart of emotional intelligence.
What are the unwanted consequences of the games?
Senior executive teams who do not focus on and
explore the dynamic that is shaping their interactions
risk organisational-wide implications. In the first
place, some of the executives themselves are likely to
harbour negative feelings about their experience with
their peers in their meetings. These nega
tive feelings are likely to eventually find
expression within their own teams. This
may flow on to ultimately result in that
senior executives team relating less well to
other teams in the organisation.
In the second place, these games can
result in decisions being made that some
senior executives do not genuinely support
or cannot live with. Subsequently, the
behaviour of those senior executives fol
lowing the meeting may not be consistent
with the senior group’s decision.
This leaves the situation where com
munication to the organisation from the
senior group may be saying one thing, but
some executives will be acting in a contrary
way. This breeds organisational cynicism
and, ultimately, malaise.
What can HR do about it?
As an HR professional it may feel threat
ening to broach this issue with your senior
team. This is understandable and it does
not mean that you are out of your depth in
raising the issue.
Before raising it, I would recommend
that HR spend a little time doing the very
thing your senior team will ultimately need
to learn how to do. That is, allow yourself
to have the uncomfortable feeling and
briefly explore some of your personal con
cerns relating to raising this issue.
Following this, you may choose to raise
the topic of senior executive meetings with
the MD or CEO (or whoever is the head of
the senior team). Your first sentence may
sound something like this:
“While I can’t be entirely sure, I sus
pect the team may be avoiding discussing
some issues and that this avoidance is
having implications on the team (and
organisational) performance and culture.
Would you be willing to talk about this
with me now?”
Then, with the CEO’s permission, it
may be helpful to provide the whole sen
ior team with some language tools that
will enable the group to raise issues that
have previously remained underground.
These tools will enable the team mem
bers to raise issues while minimising the
threat the issue may represent. I recommend
a series of language templates to kick-start
a more effective way of discussing issues
within the group. These templates are based
on the “ladder of inference” model devel
oped by Chris Argyris. (See box above)
Finally, seek to gain the group’s agree
ment to instigate a process of reflection
at the end of each important senior
group meeting. In this reflective time,
the group could talk to the following
simple (but brave) questions;
• What parts of the meeting (if any) cre
ated any peaks of feeling? Those feel
ings may be positive or negative.
• In association with those feelings,
what did you think or feel that you
did not say?
• What did you think might happen if you
did say it?
Paul Donovan is the Director of Paul Donovan Consulting which is a
consultancy which specialises in building the capacity of
businesses to engage in dialogue that delivers their desired