Healthy debate will lead to better decision-making

Valerie Morton advises on maintaining good governance in organisations where there is a culture of 'rubber stamping'

Valerie Morton says routine endorsements are one of the biggest challenges facing management teams

Q. There is a culture of 'rubber stamping' in my charity at executive and trustee level. Should this keep me awake at night?

Routine endorsements or approvals are one of the biggest challenges facing management teams and boards. Although I would not want to stop anyone from having a good night's sleep, this should make alarm bells ring because rubber stamping can lead to poor decisions and weak governance.

Proposals need to be debated and challenged in order for them to be checked for sense and refined. Every team member will have a different perspective on an issue. Healthy debate and questioning will ensure that decision-making is sound and, most importantly, that proposals stand up to scrutiny.

I have identified four reasons for the development of this rubber-stamping culture, although no doubt there are more. The first on my list has well-meaning origins, but unintended consequences - when team members trust their colleagues so much that if a colleague proposes a strategy, action or direction of travel, there appears to be no reason to doubt the validity of his or her proposal.

The second reason appears to be similar but in fact has a very different cause: team members do not challenge their colleagues because it would seem to be inappropriate or wrong for them to comment on an area that is not in their own field of expertise.

Third, it could be that constructive criticism or challenge has not been encouraged in the past. And fourth, staff have not been trained in the art of making constructive criticism. This is not something that comes naturally to every manager, director or trustee, and challenge might come across as aggressive, unhelpful or personal.

Unsurprisingly, the solution starts with leadership. The chair of any meeting should encourage comment and challenge, and make a point at the end of an item of showing how valuable the discussion has been and how the decision is stronger as a result. If it boils down to a lack of trust between colleagues, investment in team development will pay off.

More specific support on the practicalities of constructive challenge may be needed, or coaching on how individual behaviours are perceived by colleagues. A number of teams I have been on have included a review session at the end of each meeting, but I have benefited most from having an independent observer at meetings who can provide confidential, one-to-one feedback and coaching to each person.

Constant rubber stamping is not only a threat to governance; it is the main reason that people feel meetings, particularly at trustee level, are a waste of time. Develop that culture of healthy debate and see the difference it makes.

Valerie Morton is a trainer, fundraiser and consultant.

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