identify what is going on—what is triggering these
emotions? By asking them to explain exactly why they
were feeling the way they did, it gave me a chance to
validate their feelings. This validation is essential in
creating a safe environment to share their anxieties.
As the board explored their interactional cycle and
began identifying their emotions, I would encourage
them to slow down as things would inevitably get a little
heated at times. We slow emotions down so that we can
unpack and make sense of them. By slowing down, the
board is easier to bring into the current moment, which
is important when trying to eliminate blame and get
them to stop focusing so much on the past.
2: RESTRUCTURE INTERACTION, DEVELOP COHESION
Once the board had recognized their negative cycle, it
was time to create new emotional signals. We call this
“enactment”. Basically it just means facing your emotions
and allowing yourself to share them with your fellow
directors. This board struggled with this step because they
were so deep in the cycle. Getting Robert to say “When
I don’t get a response from you, all I hear is I am not
good enough and that hurts” was understandably a huge
challenge because it put him in such a vulnerable position.
We were building from a place of zero trust, so to put
himself out there was extremely difficult.
Enactment is between the directors—I guide
them through this process, but they have to speak to
each other to really break down the walls and begin
establishing the ever important emotional connection.
Now that the board was finally sending accurate
messages to one another, we began developing
a new positive interactional cycle. The goal is to
create positive emotional engagement with the other
directors. After Robert would share, I would ask Steve
and Mary how that made them feel making sure to
validate everyone’s emotions.
Changing the way people interact with each other
is tough, and this board was no exception, but when I
asked Robert how it felt to finally say exactly how he
was feeling, he responded with, “It feels a hell of a lot
better than running and putting up 3,000-foot walls and
hiding all the time. It feels good.”
I can’t stress enough how much practice and
patience it takes to develop a new positive interactional
cycle, but the result increases board performance and
the fulfillment of directors.
Finally, I asked the board to take a step back and view
their progress. Looking at the amount of forward
movement they made in just a short period of time
is invigorating. It was motivating for the directors
to see how different they felt after just talking about
their emotions for a few hours. They had shifted out
of a negative pattern that had been controlling their
relationships for years. They took risks and were
honest with one another—they were brave and faced
a difficult challenge together. What they did was
impressive and taking a moment to reflect on that will
help them in the future when times get tough.
The board went from ten miles apart to standing right
next to each other. During the process, we barely touched
on any company material. This is part of the strategy—
as a consultant it is tempting to come in and give your
advice for the direction of the company or how they
should change governance. These are temporary fixes
when the board needs something much deeper. Generally,
directors are experts on the industry and are intelligent
business people. The problem isn’t that they don’t know
what to do, it’s that they don’t know how to communicate
it to one another. Using an emotional-focused approach
to boardroom consulting is about removing the emotional
blockage so directors can make better decisions.
The three directors have a long way to go, but with a
new interactional cycle and a safe environment, they are on
their way to a more fulfilling role and higher performance.
When it comes down to it, a board is simply a
group of people who must work together in stressful
situations. While we can (and should) spend time
focusing on governance, keeping up with industry
trends, and assessing regulations, we must not ignore
the human condition in the boardroom. Board members
need to trust each other. When they trust each other,
they feel connected and safe. This is a need that is
wired into our brains at birth – we need to feel like we
belong. When board members are connected they work
better together, they feel energized, and they have a
better sense of accomplishment. They are stronger and
can address any challenge that comes at them.
Lola Gershfeld, Psy. D., is a Board Dynamics Specialist at
Level Five Executive, Inc. in Newport Beach, Calif. She can
be reached at Lola@L5Board.com.