Guiding Board Feedback to Preserve Candor | Cut to the Candor (Part Two)

For a board of directors to deliberate effectively, there’s often some amount of “ice” to be broken with regards to receiving honest feedback. In the last installment of our two-part series, Cut to the Candor: Breaking the Ice for Honest Insights, we discussed some of the many reasons someone contributing to board decision-making (either in the Evaluation or the Deliberation Phase) might reserve their candid opinions. Finding the source of hesitation plays an important role in the subject of our final installment: guiding board feedback to preserve candor.

Breaking the Ice

By “breaking the ice”, we really mean “breaking any barriers to candor”. Hesitance, in these situations, often vanishes once that initial barrier has been broken. Ultimately, anonymity is one of the best tools for getting honest feedback from a group. There are very few situations for which anonymous voting or the submission of anonymous feedback does not effectively remedy a hesitant response. However, setting up an anonymous voting or response submission method is time-consuming and may not always be an option. Best practice dictates that a group of decision-makers should be kept small. Preserving anonymity in a small group may not be a realistic option (i.e. group of five decision-makers will likely know who an anonymous response is coming from). In most cases, anonymity only serves as a band-aid; a temporary fix. It’s only one of the best tools for collecting honest feedback because it avoids having to confront or acknowledge the existence of hesitance. Given the weaknesses and vulnerabilities in using anonymity to promote candor, we have to consider more stalwart solutions.

Addressing it Outright

Taking a moment at the top of the meeting to address the effort to promote honest discussion may be enough to break the ice in a small handful of cases. However, it primarily serves to soften the blow of future attempts to break the ice. It can also provide an excuse. If you wait too long before calling for candor, your group may associate your timing with a specific response. This may deepen the level of discomfort and place candid feedback even farther out of reach. Addressing the need for candor early on shifts the motive for reinforcing this need to your earlier remarks rather than the preceding response.

Asking for Criticism

As mentioned in the previous method, shifting the motive, or potential for social awkwardness onto the desire to maintain an honest, objective, and critical discussion significantly contributes to your effectiveness in breaking the ice. Sometimes the best way to make that shift is by asking for criticism directly. If you sense that a board member is being reserved in their responses towards a given topic, asking the group to pick the topic apart through a critical lens may give the hesitant contributor an opportunity to voice their concerns.

You may detect hesitation surrounding topics for which the group appears to be in consensus. This can make it harder to shift the motives behind your call for candor. In these situations, you’ll need to demand criticism “solely” for the sake of maintaining a critical eye throughout the decision-making process. The best option would be to call for criticism or a discussion of risks and vulnerabilities for every idea brought before the group. This makes asking for it directly after sensing hesitation seem less out of the ordinary.

Using Careful Wording

Being mindful of your wording is an easy way to chip away at the psychological barriers to offering honest feedback. Consider the following when deciding how to phrase a request for criticism:

  1. Is your request specific and unambiguous?
  2. Does your request for criticism appear to be motivated by the desire to prompt a group member into offering their honest insights? (This should be avoided.)
  3. Does your request make it clear that you’re looking for criticism from each group member?

When you sense someone holding out on offering a candid critique, asking for “criticism” (as opposed to “feedback”) invites criticism specifically. People don’t want to single themselves out in offering criticism. Asking for “feedback”, “thoughts”, etc. does nothing to strip away that mental blockade. Group members will still be perceived as having chosen to offer genuine criticism. This is where a little strategic verbiage can go a long way. Think about what careful wording achieves in this question:

“Can we all try to poke some holes in our logic here just to make sure we’re thinking critically?”

It asks, specifically and unambiguously, for group members to offer their criticisms. Saying “we all” implies the involvement of each group member. Adding a “just” makes the request sound less imposing and implies that the request is being made for no other reason than to “make sure we’re thinking critically” (which also serves to shift the motive).

Making a Targeted Request

There are certain situations in which directly asking a group member for their honest input is all it takes to break the ice. For example, if an employee is deliberating at the same table as their direct supervisor, it’s understandable that they sugar coat their responses so as to not rock the boat. However, if their supervisor is on the same page — that candor is more valuable than how it may make another person or department look — it’s often best to directly address the employee’s reservations. Even if a group member is unwilling to offer their full, honest opinion, asking for it directly may coax out a response that hints at their true concerns.

Turning the Criticism On Yourself

Sometimes the fastest way to break the ice is over your own head. Asking group members to challenge your ideas can be effective in snowballing the energy and willingness towards engaging in an honest dialogue. This method can be made more effective by asking for criticism immediately after the idea has been explained and all clarifications have been offered. Making the request for criticism very deliberate communicates to others in the group that you’d like them to follow suit.

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As a best practice in breaking the ice, make sure that any method you choose is implemented as early in the decision-making process as possible. This includes both the Evaluation and the Deliberation Phase.

Breaking the ice and cutting to the candor isn’t always easy. It requires the emotional intelligence to (1) detect that someone is withholding their candor, (2) understand why they might be withholding it, and (3) initiate methods of breaking the ice to open them up for an honest dialogue. Successfully breaking the ice can make a world of difference in the efficiency and effectiveness of board decision-making.And, while we’re on the subject of helping your board of directors make more effective decisions, have you heard about Directorpoint’s board management software? Our powerful, easy-to-use platform keeps board members engaged and organized; making your communication more effective, your meetings more efficient, and your documents more secure. Schedule a demo today to learn how Directorpoint is helping organizations make better decisions… across the board!

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