Why you need a psychologist in the boardroom

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Rebecca SchalmI was preparing to facilitate a board strategy retreat and the project sparked thoughts about bringing a psychologist into the boardroom.

“Let me be clear; I don’t do strategic planning,” I stressed when I got the call.

The chair assured me they weren’t looking for a strategic planning expert. They wanted someone who is really good at reading and shaping interpersonal dynamics to facilitate an important conversation about growth and help the board align around a decision.

The request got me thinking about where and how psychology collides with governance.

Groups apply human and organizational behaviour disciplines to support strategic goals. It’s time we similarly brought a business psychologist or another professional skilled in interpersonal dynamics into a governance context.

But the idea doesn’t originate with me. Over the past few years, a number of people have suggested the work I do is badly needed in boardrooms. I see at least three key reasons:

  1. To leverage diversity, the need to build effective dynamics in the boardroom has never been greater. Historically, boardrooms were occupied by people who had a lot in common. Directors often came from the same cultural, educational and professional backgrounds. They understood the implicit rules of the game and spoke each other’s language. Recruiting peers and associates had a practical purpose – it increased the likelihood that directors would relate well, the board would gel, and the governance work would get done thoroughly and efficiently. There is nothing worse than being part of a group where people don’t understand each other, don’t communicate effectively and aren’t getting along. Today, however, with boards becoming increasingly diverse, ‘getting along’ requires more explicit and intentional effort. While boards don’t have a long history of engaging professionals to assist them with developing their interpersonal and group dynamics, it’s time to challenge the status quo.
  2. Board chairs may not be fully equipped to build a dynamic that helps the group govern most effectively. Leading a team from a position of power and authority is one thing. Facilitating a board is quite another. Being a board chair is a complex balance of attentive listening, observation, facilitation, influence and control. It requires a different set of skills and behaviours than most other leadership roles. There are few training grounds to prepare one to be an effective chair. In the same way leaders at all levels and experience invest in honing their skills and bring in professionals to help them form and develop high-performing teams, board chairs should not be shy to engage in development processes.
  3. The more quickly a board can become high-performing, the greater its ability to fulfil its mandate effectively and add value to the organization. A board is not a traditional work team; it’s a group aligned around a common purpose that needs established processes and operating norms to govern effectively. Key processes such as how the board communicates, makes decisions, interfaces with the organization, and evaluates its performance need to be established and honed. An effective board also needs to find the right balance of collegiality and challenge; to effectively draw in and on diverse experience to inform issues; and to confront and correct dysfunctional behaviour. The challenges confronting boards include: they meet infrequently, their agendas are often packed, and members may interact little or not at all between meetings. Add to this the need to make prudent decisions around complex, time-bound and high-risk issues. These aren’t conditions that set the groundwork for easy and effective group dynamics. A board needs strategies to accelerate and maintain its ability to engage effectively. Bringing in an expert to support the chair in this process is worth considering.

Click here to downloadThere was a time when boards were secret societies operating behind closed doors. Those days are long gone. It’s time boards gave serious and strategic consideration to how they can accelerate and maximize their effectiveness.

It may be time for you to invite a psychologist into your boardroom.

Rebecca Schalm, PhD, is founder and CEO of Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., a consultancy that provides organizations with advice and talent management solutions. For interview requests, click here.

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By Rebecca Schalm

Rebecca holds a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and has assisted organizations for over 25 years in building talent capability that enables business strategy. Prior to founding Strategic Talent Advisors Inc., she was SVP & Chief Human Resources Officer of Finning International Inc. and spent over 10 years at RHR International LLP.