Charities need to work hard to improve diversity of thought and personality and thus avoid groupthink on boards
By Penny Wilson
It’s growing increasingly common for charities to carry out skills, knowledge and experience audits these days when recruiting a board, and they’re a very good idea as well. But when it comes to decision-making, it’s actually just as or more important for your charity to have a diverse range of personalities around the table.
And it’s important to think about how these can be brought together harmoniously – but not too harmoniously – for the benefit of your charity.
The danger with boards is that trustees often recruit trustees. And all of us, everywhere, like people who are like ourselves. We naturally gravitate to the company of people who look like us, talk like us and think like us. If we throw in the fact that trustees often recruit other trustees by word of mouth from their circles of personal acquaintance, you can see that boards can end up as startlingly homogeneous places.
In addition, certain charities tend to draw people who think in certain ways. This is most obvious in membership charities, where the board is often chosen from the membership, who all do the same job. But even non-membership charities are going to attract people who work in their particular fields: healthcare charities will draw health workers; education charities will draw teachers.
We can all see that a board full of accountants will tend to approach problems one way, whereas boards full of musicians or architects or scientists or teachers will tend to approach the same problems in different ways.
A lot of focus, quite rightly, has gone on visible diversity and protected characteristics: making sure that boards have a range of skin colours and economic backgrounds, and a balance of genders, sexualities and ages. There’s perhaps been more talk than action, so far, but at least we’re starting to talk about it.
But a mixture of genders, colours and ages gets you only so far. You can have boards that look very different, but still think alike.
So we need to take care. All groups of human beings, everywhere, are vulnerable to groupthink. We all develop to mirror each other and follow social patterns. It’s a survival trait. It’s in our DNA. Usually it’s a useful behaviour, but if we’re not careful it can lead to a lack of challenge and discussion on a charity board, and therefore a lack of scrutiny and a lack of originality. Members of the board stop asking "could we do it another way?" and "why do we do this at all?", and governance doesn’t really happen properly. One of the most valuable traits of any trustee is to be different from the other trustees.
A certain amount of common ground is good, however. Too much diversity of approach makes it hard for a board to function. You risk ending up in two armed camps.
One of the answers is to do personality assessments, in the same way as we do skills assessments, and check that there is a good range of different personality traits and problem-solving approaches around the table. There are loads of tools you can use to do this. I don’t think it matters too much which one you choose. Just pick a free one and use it as the jumping-off point for your discussion.
You may well have a couple of trustees who think this activity is nonsense and a waste of time. That's good too. Scepticism is a valuable trait in a board member.
There are certainly no right or wrong answers here. It’s more of a balancing act. You need enough shared ground to be able to work towards a common goal, but not so much that no one ever questions or tries to find a better way.
The important thing is to know where you are on the see-saw.
This article originally appeared in Third Sector: https://www.thirdsector.co.uk/