A look at the psychology of the chair-chief relationship

What goes on beneath the surface could be the most important relationship in any charity, Rebecca Cooney reports

Ruth Lesirge and Ros Oakley
Ruth Lesirge and Ros Oakley

When Ruth Lesirge and Ros Oakley set out to write a guide to the chair-chief executive relationship from the point of view of the chair rather than that of the chief executive, they found that much sound advice was already available; but there were also important gaps.

"For example," they write in A Question of Balance, a new guide from the Association of Chairs, "there was scant exploration of the psychology involved in the relationship." And the guide has, as a result, a distinct emphasis on what goes on beneath the surface of what is arguably the most important relationship in any charity.

Lesirge told Third Sector: "It’s much easier to use the rational part of our brains to talk about systems, processes, procedures and assume that’s all you need, whereas the psychological aspect means addressing the sense of self and how that might be colouring leadership and teamwork."

By looking at psychoanalysis and neuroscience, they found potential explanations of the kind of difficulties that chairs and chief executives can get into. For example, forgetting to bring up a difficult issue could be repression – the brain pushing away topics that create too much anxiety. In a deeper refusal to accept reality, the chair might find him or herself in denial over, say, the possibility of fraud or insolvency.

"One sign that it’s going wrong is when, as a chair, you’re hearing things for the first time as an unpleasant surprise," says Oakley. "Or when things the chief executive is saying aren’t ringing true, and you get the feeling you’re not on the same page."

If the chair picks a fight over a small issue, it might be worth considering whether there is some displacement going on, the guide says – are they really annoyed about a slight discrepancy in the chief executive’s expenses, or is there a bigger issue they’re worried about broaching?

If one party rushes to blame the other for a problem, Oakley and Lesirge write, it could be that they are projecting anxiety, rather than taking responsibility. Alternatively, the chair might project "superhuman capabilities" onto the chief executive, and regress into depending on them for everything.

Ultimately, the best way to deal with these issues, both agree, is through self-awareness. "You have to understand your own emotions and be able to manage them," says Lesirge. "Then you’re in a calmer position to acknowledge what’s going on with other people – if you’re anxious or uncivil or angry yourself, that can colour your interactions.

"Opening up the conversation can be a catalyst for building a really effective relationship – if you’re willing to take that difficult step."

A Question of Balance can be downloaded from the Association of Chairs

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