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Board Peer Review: Communication

Posted by Grace Lee on Dec 11, 2012 8:57:00 AM

Effective communication is crucial at every level of the organization, especially within and from the board. It promotes better understanding, reduces unnecessary conflict, and helps build healthy relationships. High levels of emotional intelligence and self-awareness are common among good communicators. 

"What are the main causes of damaged relationships?" I've asked that question to hundreds of people, and consistently the two most common answers are:

Poor Communication & Conflicting Expectations

The ability to communicate effectively isn't natural to many people, but it is a skill that can and should be improved by everyone. The way each board member communicates with others contributes to the quality of the board and the organization.  Below are the key questions to evaluate the communication skills of your peers on the board:

  • Does this person stay on message: consistently, clearly and concisely?
  • Does he/she assume the best of others with high expectations?
  • Does this person use body language that is appropriate and constructive?
  • Does he/she genuinely listen and seek clarification?
  • Is praise given publicly by this person, and rebuke shared privately?
  • Does he/she share information in a manner that is consistent with the organization's policies and practices?
  • Does this person collaborate well in board meetings, on phone calls, and in email dialogue


The board should speak with ONE VOICE when communicating messages. Statements by individualCommunication Cartoon Dolighan members must not contradict the board’s agreed-upon positions and goals. Dialogue and debate are an important part of board meetings, but once a decision is made, what is said in the board room stays in the board room! Every board member must stay on message regarding decisions, opinions of the board, marketing key points, plans, etc. This prevents misunderstandings and the perception of confusion or conflict. 

Political campaigns are good examples of the value of consistency in communication. Bill Clinton focused on, "It's the economy, stupid!" to keep his many representatives and spokespeople tightly aligned with the agreed upon talking points. While speaking for President Obama in this year's campaign, however, he frequently veered from the key messages and caused others to do damage control. Likewise, each board members verbal and nonverbal messages should be consistent just like the board's strategic plans. 

High Expectations

Expecting and assuming the best of others is an important trait for board members. This attitude impacts the culture of the board and the entire organization. Each board member should expect the best from himself/herself and from others, while also being flexible enough to adapt to changing conditions. 

The impact of high expectation is described by some using the pymalion effect, where the expectations we have of others directly influences their performance.  To develop this approach I highly recommend the book, The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.

Body Language

Body language, such as facial expressions, posture, eye movement, tone of voice, breathing, and gestures, influences so much of the messages that are communicated at board meetings. Up to 85% of what others "hear" is based on nonverbal expressions. So your grandmother was right--posture really does matter! It's the difference between the intended message and what is actually heard. Body language can indicate boredom, aggressiveness, defensiveness, respect, attentiveness, disregard, and so on. Effective board members have the ability to understand and use verbal and nonverbal communications to respectfully interact and express themselves. 


Communication isn't just talking--Listening is the most important part of communication, especially when done actively and respectfully. Hearing is a physical sense, but listening is a skill that enables the board member to seek understanding and improve decision making. Barriers to effective listening include distractions, bias, fatigue, anger, noise, predisposition, interruption, and/or fear. The effective listener knows how to be silent, using only open-ended questions and restating what has been said to seek greater clarification.

Praise & Rebuke

Praise that identifies and builds upon strengths improves performance better than a ceaseless message regarding faults. The chief administrator, the board chair, and others on the board need positive feedback more frequently (or more so) than a complete understanding of their weaknesses. Praise should be public and concrete with detailed examples. Rebuke or criticism is best shared privately, and then publicly only as necessary for the greater good of the people and organization. As much as possible, criticism should sustain objectivity by using appropriate examples and associating performance to a previously agreed upon rubric for assessment. 

Communication Policy

The most effective boards have clearly stated policy regarding how messages are shared with the organization and community.  Board members should be trained in who is authorized to communicate which messages, the sequence in which messages are shared, how social media should be used with regard to board data, decisions, and dialogue, and the consequences for violating board policy. 


The concept is simple--one that should have been learned in kindergarten. Getting along with others, sharing well, and learning from each other is a critical part of effective board governance. How can the employees of the organization be expected to collective improve performance when the board doesn't collaborate well to utilize the strengths, instincts, knowledge, and resources of each member? This certainly does not mean that everything should be done by committee and consensus, but it does require cooperatively addressing the strategic goals and plans of the organization in a way that is collectively stronger and more competitive.

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