When it comes to corporate boards and diversity, the conventional wisdom is simple: Diversity is good. When directors are too alike, the thinking goes, they look at problems—and solutions—the same way. There’s no one to challenge prevailing ideas, or to speak out on issues important to certain groups of customers and employees.
By contrast, diversity leads to more innovation, more outside-the-box thinking and better governance.
Sounds great. And it is, in theory. Unfortunately, few boards that pursue diversity ever see the wished-for returns. Many report no significant change in their performance, while others bog down in conflict and gridlock.
Why the gap between potential and reality? Why does it appear to be a lot easier to appoint a diverse board than to make it function well?
Blame it on human nature: As much as diversity is something we prize, the truth is that people often feel baffled, threatened or even annoyed by persons with views and backgrounds very different from their own. The result is that when directors are appointed because their views or backgrounds are different, they often are isolated and ignored. Constructive disagreements spill over into personal battles.
But the solution is not to give up and avoid diversity. Rather, boards need to minimize the friction that diversity often introduces. To unlock the benefits, in short, boards must learn to work with colleagues who were selected not because they fit in—but because they don’t.
Our research sheds light on some of the hurdles that diverse boards face, and on solutions for maximizing the benefits such boards offer.
Where Diversity Goes Awry
Initial Encounters. The problems start from Day One. At the very first meeting, directors will scrutinize the words and behavior of new and atypical colleagues for signals about their competence and personality. Depending on why they were appointed to the board, the newcomers run the risk of being saddled with all sorts of stereotypes. “Typical minority.” “Typical accountant.” “Politician.” “Activist.” And so on.
If the new member asks too many basic questions, for instance, he becomes “clueless” or “high maintenance.” If she says nothing, she’s “insecure.” Unbridled enthusiasm, meanwhile, particularly coming from a specialist, could be seen as “posturing” or posing a threat to an existing director’s expertise in a given area.
A company we work with added a woman designer to its board—the only woman on the board—with a background attuned to the future of the industry but very different from its present. After the first meeting, during which she took an oblique perspective on many issues, some directors were already expressing doubts about her contributions. After just one meeting, she already had been pigeonholed.
Impressions Last. Once a label is on, it can be all but impossible to remove. Directors who quickly take a dim view of a colleague will tend to process all subsequent information in ways that support their initial opinion—and to block information that doesn’t fit. If a new member’s commitment is doubted, for example, a non-reaction might be read as disinterest, even though the member actually agreed.
Cultural Differences. Signals easily get crossed due to cultural differences. Directors with broadly different experiences will behave in unexpected ways that may be misinterpreted—as disruptive or aggressive, for example. Behaviors like interrupting or excitability may have been the norm in a director’s previous surroundings, but they can raise eyebrows where they aren’t generally accepted.
Confirmation From Others. Current board members also will compare notes about the newcomer in an attempt to define his or her character. That makes perfect sense. But it’s important to realize that they are usually turning to like-minded colleagues, who often not only confirm the view but reinforce it with observations of their own that support the bias.
Reinforcing Behavior. When people are regarded as difficult—or unimportant—some of their colleagues may begin to interact with them in a brusque or forceful manner. Once judged unfavorably, such people usually are excluded from informal interactions that take place before and after meetings, which further limits their involvement. Having contact only when it’s required also means there’s less opportunity for directors to develop more rounded views of that individual.
Questions to Ask Yourself
- 1. Has your company’s board gone out of its way to find people with complementary—and hence different—profiles?
- 2. Are board members with atypical backgrounds accepted by all of their colleagues?
- 3. Does your board engage productively in forceful discussions?
- 4. Is there a board member designated to facilitate discussions and tease out potentially controversial positions?
- 5. Do atypical directors get help making the transition when they join the board?
If you answered no to any of these questions, your company should consider doing more to tap into the benefits of diversity in the boardroom. The chairman especially needs to be alert to cultural differences that can lead to misunderstandings, introduce new directors in ways that are supportive of their expertise, and be careful not to limit their contributions by pigeonholing or labeling them.
The reactions of the new members themselves can be a source of friction, as well. They may be defensive or overly sensitive to stereotyping—seeing slights where none were meant (or where they were). And they may succumb to stereotyping themselves.
The bottom line is, when a lack of trust or respect develops, the new director can become more reluctant to contribute—or more strident. In either case, such behavior is likely to move them to fringe status on the board.
Groupthink. Conflicts that at first affect only a few members can spread to and impair the performance of the entire board—inhibiting discussion, innovation and decision-making. In the worst cases, the situation turns into a vicious circle that can’t self-correct. Part of the problem is that boards typically gather infrequently, and in rather formal settings, leaving few opportunities to correct false impressions and iron out the tensions.
Existing directors may unite in defensive reaction to the new member and become more entrenched in groupthink. For example, studies show that lone women on boards often report feeling isolated and ignored. Adding a second woman seems to make the problem worse, leading to false perceptions of collusion between the two. Only when there are at least three women do their colleagues accept them as something more than “female directors.” The women, too, say they feel less self-conscious and less concerned about representing “their gender.”
A War Between Factions. Sometimes, boards become polarized or split into factions determined by how the different members perceive the new director and his or her contributions. For instance, the appointment of a foreign national may sharpen differences between domestic and overseas directors. Over time, a pattern of “us-and-them” relations evolves.
Avoiding the Conflict
The good news is there are ways to handle all of these potential conflicts. Most of the friction can be avoided, or at least kept to a minimum, by following some simple strategies.
Choose Members Carefully. When board members are choosing a new director who will bring diversity, they should think carefully about personality. Newcomers need to be savvy and aware of how they come across to others. The more different they are from the rest, the more they’ll need to work at winning over skeptical colleagues.
Ability to disagree constructively should be high on the list of desired characteristics, as well as experience dealing with new kinds of people and situations. The newcomer needs to become part of the group even as he or she challenges it.
Board members looking to hire a new director should also guard against biased thinking—by themselves and their colleagues—as early as the interview stage. When interviewers catch themselves thinking “she/he just doesn’t get the business,” they can also remind themselves that this will also allow the newcomer to ask questions the board stopped asking long ago.
Assist Newcomers. The chairman or chairwoman should pay close attention to the way new directors are introduced, especially if they have divergent profiles. Newcomers must have a chance to make a favorable first impression and to connect with others in a benign setting—before their first official board meeting.
The chairman should identify the board member likely to connect best with the incoming director and ask him or her to make a friendly phone call or meet for coffee. Giving newcomers insights into the board’s operating philosophy and culture up front can help avoid gaffes early on. Debriefings after meetings can help, too.
At the first official board meeting, the chairman can help the newcomer get off to a good start by calling on him or her to comment about a particular issue. This can signal the new director’s area of expertise, helping them make contributions right away without seeming presumptuous. But the chairman must be careful not to pigeonhole the new director—for example, by inviting the newly appointed female director to “give us the women’s perspective on this issue.”
Don’t Give In to Get Along. Dissenting voices can be necessary to pick up on issues that chief executives may be missing. But sometimes diversity inhibits pushback. Some directors, for example, may hold their tongues in order not to trigger hostilities between warring factions.
For Further Reading
See these related articles from MIT Sloan Management Review.
- How Boards Can Be Better: A Manifesto
By Robert J. Thomas, Michael Schrage, Joshua B. Bellin and George Marcotte (Winter 2009)
The nominally independent board of directors is in fact often dependent on management for information. But new pressures on companies, more cooperative approaches and new technologies can render directors increasingly effective as evaluators and advisers.
- The Changing Face of Corporate Boards
By Edward E. Lawler III and David L. Finegold (Winter 2005)
Boards in the U.S. are undergoing reforms in leadership, membership and performance evaluation. But are all the changes for the better?
- Bridging Faultlines in Diverse Teams
By Lynda Gratton, Andreas Voigt and Tamara J. Erickson (Summer 2007)
Project teams can fly or founder on the demographic attributes of team members and the fractures they can create. Here’s how to recognize the potential for division, and how to respond in time when team fractures do arise.
- Are Professional Board Directors the Answer?
By Eugene H. Fram (Winter 2005)
Companies that are having trouble filling board positions should consider a new type of director: well-established professionals who devote all of their work, time and energies to corporate board activities.
- How to Resolve Board Disputes More Effectively
By Ralph Hasson (Fall 2006)
Companies have a number of internal and external conflict-resolution resources at their disposal. In addition, they should consider creating the new role of board ombudsman to mediate disagreements.
Diverse boards must not be afraid of conflict, as long as it is constructive and civil. Boards that have difficulty discussing their differences, or reconciling them, make it easy for the CEO either to dismiss what they are saying or to listen exclusively to their supporters on the board. The board thus fails in its governance role.
Encourage Initial Dissenters. New directors sometimes tire of the struggle of making themselves heard. Feeling isolated and ignored, they end up self-censoring.
Sometimes they won’t speak up for fear of being alone in their opinion, even though they were put on the board for their unique perspective. Other members may have the same opinion but also remain silent, not realizing another person thinks the same thing.
The chairman or lead director must go out of his or her way to make it easy for board members to express vague concerns as a way of finding out whether those views are more widely shared.
The chairman may have to draw out the newcomer, particularly on issues outside their comfort zone: “Mary, you haven’t said anything.” If Mary responds, “Well, I’m not an expert,” the chairman may need to insist: “I understand, but we still value your candid way of looking at things.”
Have Members Share the Role of Devil’s Advocate. Boards often have need of a devil’s advocate. But it shouldn’t always be the same person, and particularly not a director who was appointed because his or her views differ from the group’s. Anyone who always looks at issues critically may end up being typecast as an “oddball” or a “cynic” whose comments should not be taken too seriously.
One way around the problem is to choose a different director to play devil’s advocate at each meeting. The choice can depend on the issues to be discussed. Or ask for volunteers.
This is also a way to help reluctant lone dissenters test whether others share their opinion.
Review the Role of the Chairman. Increasing a board’s diversity is ultimately a test of leadership. If the process isn’t managed well from the start, it’s not going work.
Sometimes the role of the chairman or lead director has to change from chief strategist to that of a facilitator. Required skills for this include the ability to keep discussions on track, bridge gaps between people, elicit the viewpoints of those who are less opinionated, and cut to the heart of issues without bruising egos.
Such a role can be challenging for a chief executive who doubles as chairman or chairwoman. Patiently encouraging views that run counter to the mainstream, or those of leadership, isn’t something that comes naturally to many CEOs.
Thus, a board that decides to pursue more diversity should seriously consider separating the roles of chairman and CEO, if it hasn’t done so already.
— Dr. Manzoni is professor of leadership and organizational development and director of the Breakthrough Program for Senior Executives at IMD, Lausanne, Switzerland. Dr. Strebel is the Sandoz Family Foundation professor of governance, strategy and change and director of the IMD program for High Performance Boards. Dr. Barsoux is a senior research fellow at IMD. They can be reached at reports @wsj.com .