This blog post is based on two briefings which were written for Association of Chairs by Marcus Page, former Chair of the Institute of Group Analysis.

During these challenging times, your board team may be faced with some difficult decisions. If your board is under increased pressure this is likely to have an impact on your trustees’ emotions and behaviour. You may find that your board team, which has worked very well together until now, has started to experience tensions, or perhaps existing tensions have worsened.

In times of pressure, it’s important that you look after yourself and your board team. It’s worth considering how human emotions may affect your board and the decisions you collectively make. Being aware of these emotional responses will help you recognise these behaviours in yourself and your trustees, and help you to overcome them.

How emotions might affect your board

A common defence mechanism is repression. This happens when we suppress disagreeable feelings and avoid being reminded of people or events that have caused us distress or anxiety. We might say things like ‘I don’t want to think about that!’ to signify this thought process. In terms of board behaviour, there might be difficult agenda items which tend to get glossed over or postponed to the next meeting. This emotion may well emerge if your board has to make difficult decisions around finances, insolvency, staff redundancies, or even merger or closure.

Another common psychological defence is displacement. This is when we have been upset or angered by one thing but instead of dealing with it, we direct the emotions towards something else. For example, if we feel slighted by a person in a more powerful position we may not directly express aggressive feelings towards them, but instead take them out on someone in a less powerful position who has the misfortune to upset us. In a board meeting, you might experience this if an unnecessary amount of discussion is given to a small issue, rather than to a bigger issue which feels more threatening. For example, focusing on the timing of a meeting rather than a key issue like funding during coronavirus or a proposed merger.

Denial can happen when we experience a sudden loss or trauma. A board could experience a state of denial when faced with the threat of insolvency or closure. The trustees may ‘bury their heads in the sand’ and try to carry on with a ‘business as usual’ approach, despite the need to deal with the situation.

Projection happens when we distance ourselves from an emotion that we don’t want to see in ourselves and we attribute it to someone else instead. In this situation, board members may shift blame onto someone else. This behaviour can be especially problematic if it’s directed towards one of the trustees or the CEO, effectively making them a scapegoat. Or in its ‘positive’ form it can involve projecting superhuman capabilities onto an individual (e.g. the Chair or CEO) but with the result that the board is passive and places too much on the shoulders of one or two people.

Incohesion can be seen in cases of trauma. In an organisational sense, this can be seen during periods of frequent change when individuals or groups lose their sense of security. For example, if there is a high turnover of trustees or Chairs. Incohesion may result in loss of morale or individualistic ways of working or, conversely, the board may bind together and display ‘groupthink’ where individuals focus on agreeing with each other to avoid conflict and can make poor decisions as a result.

Some trustees may have a strong desire to find someone similar to themselves. This is another defence mechanism which is known as pairing. It tends to happen in groups where there are ‘unknowns’. An individual might try and find a pairing in order to obtain safety and nurture. It can result in a group becoming fractured, rather than working cohesively together.

Your role, as Chair

Chairing a board involves much more than tending to the rational and dispassionate dispatch of business. It is also about recognising the board as a social group with group dynamics that can affect its ability to function well.

It’s important to reflect on any of these emotions being displayed by your trustees or by yourself. Remember that it’s completely normal to experience these emotions, especially in times of difficulty or uncertainty. Your role is to notice patterns of behaviour and help your board colleagues work productively together.

For more information

Read Marcus Page’s original articles, which explore these topics in more depth, in our Members’ Area :

Why do good boards make bad decisions?
Boards and human emotions

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Join Association of Chairs to access these resources, along with many others in our Members’ Area. Membership costs £50 – 100 per year (depending on your organisation’s income).