How to Serve on a Board or Committee

Don’t be afraid to vote no.
—James Hendry

Independence is better than being a cloneJames Hendry, a Portland attorney, finished his second and final term as a “public” (non-psychologist” member of the Oregon Board of Psychologist Examiners in May. His valedictory message to the board included advice to be willing, even to feel good, about voting against the majority.

Hendry himself provided a good example of this. Most board decisions were either unanimous or had Hendry as the lone dissenting vote. And he dissented a lot! And he dissented well, casting his “no” vote in a firm, confident voice, neither apologetic nor confrontational, and letting it go when the board as a whole voted against him.

Update, July 11, 2015: This post is more timely than I realized, as two other board members on the OBPE have just resigned. These boards and commissions have high turnover, so if you throw your hat in the ring, you’ll get your chance sooner than you think.

What’s a Member’s Role?

If you’re on a board or committee, the important task is generally for the board to make decisions, and of course to embark on whatever amount of study and investigation it takes to become informed enough to make these decisions. Typically these decisions are voted upon.

How to Cast Your Vote

I can think of three basic strategies for discharging one’s decision-making duties:

  1. Having no particular strategy.
  2. Vowing to make decisions independently, according to one’s own judgment, regardless of the opinions of others.
  3. Deferring to the judgement of others, whether inside our outside the group.

Anyone who knows me can predict that I see Option 2 as the only acceptable option. Why is that? Well, partly it’s a process of elimination. Option 3  (voting according to someone else’s judgment rather than one’s own) violates the duties of a member — members are supposed to make their own decisions, not be someone else’s messenger boy.

The tricky option is Option 1 (not having a strategy). Without a firm strategy, one is likely to be swayed by social pressures and end up voting with the group, thus drifting into the dreaded waters of Option 3.

The Comfort of Being in the Minority

It’s especially tempting to go along with the group when one is new and inexperienced, and surrounded by members who are all confidently doing the same thing. But this is exactly the right time to vote independently!

In fact, it’s safer to vote independently. A majority decision is just as binding as a unanimous decision, so if you cast the sole dissenting vote, there are no negative consequences, even if your opinion is completely wrong!

But there are serious consequences of excessive unanimity and conformism. James Surowiecki points this out in his excellent book, The Wisdom of Crowds. Surowiecki demonstrates that some social dynamics allow group decisions to be better than if the decision were left to the group’s smartest member, while other social dynamics (the ones many people associate with committees) can ensure that a group’s decision will be stupider than the decision of its stupidest member. Imagine how unpleasant is must be to serve on the latter kind of committee! Or, worse, to serve on the latter kind of committee and not even notice how bad the decisions are.

How Boards and Committees Can Make Good Decisions

In our society, committees have a reputation for making bad decisions, and there’s a lot of truth in this. But some committees make consistently excellent decisions.  What elements promote good decisions? Surowiecki suggests four key elements:

  1. Diversity of opinion. Each person should have private information, even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.
  2. Independence. People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them.
  3. Decentralization. People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.
  4. Aggregation.Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

This is pretty straightforward. You can take care of the first and second items (diversity of opinion and independence) by studying the issues and forming your own opinions about them independently, before it’s discussed at a meeting.

The third item, decentralization, means that you use your own sources of information. For example, when a board is overly reliant on what their staff tells them — as they usually are — the information stream is too centralized, and the board is led by the nose and becomes a rubber-stamp body. This is bad even when the staff is good (for a variety of reasons, including the loss of diversity of viewpoint), and it’s terrible when the staff is bad.

And the last item, aggregation, just boils down to voting.

It’s Tough, But Someone’s Gotta Do It

Many people find disagreement painful and will do a lot to avoid it. But boards and committees are all about conflict. Without conflict, they’d have no reason to exist. You can’t avoid conflict — you can only displace it. The conflict you avoid within the group simply mutates into a conflict between the group and the outside world, as the issues and people the group unanimously ignores feel slighted, injured, and unheard.

If you’re lucky, this will blow up in your face right away. If you’re unlucky, you’ll get away with if for a long time, allowing the group to feel ever more complacent and self-righteous, but, once the chips are down, also helpless and fearful, out of awareness of their own inflexibility.

So the last thing a board should do is recruit its buddies as new members. You’d be far better off to recruit people at random. At least it would avoid the deadly synchronization of ideas that comes from recruiting people whose opinions are too similar. This habit is the main reason why most committees make such lousy decisions.

Best of all is to recruit people who often take the opposite stance from yours . “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” After all, unless you believe in your own infallibility, there will be times when you’re wrong and the other person is right, if only through random chance! More realistically, each of us has a pattern of wisdom and blindness that is partly individual, and partly the result of our experiences. People who have tread a very similar path to ours are comfortable to be around and easy to communicate with, but travelling one path means that you had to forego others. You don’t have a decent map of the territory until you include folks who have walked down a lot of different paths.

I’m not saying that adopting a policy of routinely going against the group, and even to facilitate the evolution of the group to include more viewpoints to disagree with, is going to be perfectly easy or comfortable at first, only that it will become so over time, and that you’ll find the journey rewarding, and in the meantime your constituents will have you to thank for helping  your board or committee to a better understanding and far better decisions.

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