Personality dynamics: making the most of creative tension in the boardroom

A board whose directors are constantly bickering will not function effectively, but neither will one that never questions decisions. Rigorous debate or “creative tension” is an accepted part of the process in sound decision-making but the nature of any debate depends on the personalities within the group, the board dynamics and how well they are managed.

When setting up a board for the first time, it would be wise to include a few “out-of-the-box” thinkers. The trouble is no one wants a director who is contentious or who creates conflict – and “out-of-the-box” thinkers can’t help being both.

Personality traits

Personality is not easily defined or measured. The American Psychological Association describes personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.”

The most widely accepted model of classifying personality traits is the Big Five factors.   In psychology, the 'Big Five' is a term used to describe the five broad traits of human personality. 

The Big Five personality traits are:

  • Openness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Neuroticism

Boards that work best often have a chairman who recognises the different personal attributes and allows them to flourish. For example, if one personality aspect was tending to dominate, the chairman acted as a good cop, ensuring the more forceful personalities didn’t dominate and that the kindly nature of peacemakers didn’t get trampled. A chairman who is secure and doesn’t feel threatened can lead a board to understand that encouraging personal styles is an effective way to ensure collective wisdom flows in an unfettered way. It requires judicious experience to achieve but, without it, all are left aboard a ship of misery in a sea of anarchy.

From personal experience sitting on one board with two different people in the chair role over time provided an insight into the effect of contrasting personalities and styles. Both Chairs were equally successful, despite having very different approaches, because they had the most important thing in common – the respect of the rest of the board.

Decisions made by a board are usually very complex at the strategic level and are often complicated by ethical considerations. There are few simple answers and the decision-making process needs to reflect this.

For example, if the chairman has an autocratic style, this often closes down any questioning or further discussion.  It can also steer the board towards a decision that may not be the best one.  Often the combination of an autocratic CEO, managing director and chairman can control the decision-making of the board. It takes a lot of courage for a director to speak up and challenge that kind of culture, especially as it’s often very entrenched and associated with very influential or charismatic individuals.

Culture of the boardroom

I’d suggest that anyone who is considering a directorship asks the current board members how they make their decisions. If they don’t have the self-awareness to describe the group culture and their decision-making style, I’d question whether it’s worth joining such a board.

For a board that is self-aware, some of the most complex decisions relate to the nature of the board itself.

“Diversity is essential, but what that entails may not always the same for every organisation; the tokenistic box-ticking approach is nonsense,” says one company director.

“Judgment is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to grow; directors need to take responsibility for their individual judgment in deciding not only who has the skills needed at the board table, but also the type of personality and interpersonal skills that enables the person to both contribute effectively and to draw out the best from other people, creating the right mix for that particular company.”

While every board is a collection of highly skilled individuals, it is also a relationship system and in the end, relationships within the board and how the board functions are more important than the individuals themselves. Accepting this may open the door to reflection and continuous improvement.

“Any board can learn to overcome differences and learn to respect them,” says an experienced Chairperson. “As long as there’s a willingness to be open to difference, you can take people to a whole new level of honesty, creativity, thinking, effectiveness and mutual respect.” 

Henri Eliot is CEO of Board Dynamics