Chairs should consider standing aside if board dynamics are poor and should play a vital role in fostering a positive relationship between trustees, according to a new report from the Association of Chairs.
According to the report, Managing Difficult Board Dynamics, which was released yesterday as part of the AoC’s Chair’s Challenge series, chairs should play a key role in fostering and maintaining good dynamics at board level, including acknowledging that the chair could be part of the problem.
The report says that a dysfunctional board should prompt the chair to consider how their behaviour or approach is helping or hindering the board, and this should include considering whether a new chair is required and seeking the opinions of other board members.
"Different strengths, skills and attributes will be useful at various points in the life of the charity," the report says.
"It may well involve recognising that a different type of chair is now required for the next stage in the charity’s development."
A failure to accept feedback, dominating or failing to lead board discussions, and being unable to include everyone in board discussions and decisions are among the signs of poor leadership from chairs, the report says.
The report also highlights signs of bad board dynamics, such as boards being over-engaged in minor issues, aggression from board members to staff and trustees appearing remote and uninterested.
Other factors include a lack of dissenting views at board level, small cliques deciding issues before the main board meeting, a failure to make decisions or constantly revisiting decisions during board meetings, or one or two trustees dominating meetings.
The report says that issues such as board homogeneity, boards with too many long-serving members, having too many ex-staff members on board, and overly deferential or dysfunctionally polite trustees can all lead to poor board dynamics.
The latest governance code, which was released earlier this year, contains a number of recommendations that the report says can help to ensure a board works properly and fosters good board dynamics.
The report suggests that chairs can foster good board dynamics through techniques such as ensuring agendas and papers for meetings are well organised, having board-only sessions before or after some meetings, asking for trustees to provide reflections at the end of meetings and ensuring people feel comfortable in meetings.
Other "softer skills" highlighted in the report are seeking feedback from fellow trustees and creating opportunities for board members to get to know one another.
But the report also warns that difficult conversations "are part of the chair’s role" and are crucial to ensuring that problematic behaviours do not escalate and damage the board.
Ros Oakley, executive director of the Association of Chairs, said at a launch event for the report last night: "When you are faced with a board that really isn’t working or where the dynamics are really difficult, it is really tempting to look the other way, to hope it will go away or to blame someone else. But we are really clear that it is the chair’s leadership role."