Roberta Gilbert

  Roberta Gilbert


Why do so many group efforts in the boardroom turn into emotional maelstroms, lasting much longer than the allotted time, with people arguing, shouting at each other, or taking sides?

Bowen family systems theory talks about this kind of thing and how to prevent it. Five considerations can come to our rescue:

  1. Lack of preparation
  2. Groupthink
  3. Lacking organizational guiding principles
  4. The leader’s emotional state
  5. A simple guideline for order

We’ll consider each in turn.

Lack of preparation

There may not be much preparation needed for a routine gathering for consideration of everyday business. But if emotionally-charged issues need discussion, the meeting will be intense. A written request for people to think, do research, and prepare thoughts on paper, is in order when this type of item is on the agenda.

People need advance preparation time because, for best decision-making, we want the best thinking of everyone present to be expressed. To get that, people need time to calm any emotional reactivity, time for consideration, and group time to figure out what people really think. It is not out of order to ask people to prepare their thoughts for a meeting of the board.


Much has been said and written about groupthink, but not nearly enough to actually change boardroom behavior. Groupthink is a phenomenon where the loudest voice is joined by the majority, and thus ends up making the decisions. There is almost always someone like this in the group. He or she is an expert at it, having done it all their lives. They are in control, but their idea may not be the best decision for the organization.

To avoid groupthink decision-making, we may have to step in, cut rants short, or ask for lower decibels. We may ask for a time of silence or a break (cool-off time). Afterwards, going around the room, asking for each individual’s honest and best thinking may bring forth good ideas and direction for the future. That may or may not agree with the loud voice’s opinions.

Lacking organizational guiding principles

The organization must take the time to explore and choose its basic guiding principles. Guiding principles keep organizations on balance when the going gets tough. They are also calming to the group and act as a check on tangential projects.

When the thinking around the table gets a little out there, the guiding principles can be referred to. If the thought is in line with the guiding principles, a proposal may need to be adopted. If not, it can be rejected.

Most organizations have short-term and long-term statements of purpose and identity, but they’ve never taken the time to understand the guiding principles upon which these statements are based. Those that do are way ahead of the game.

The leader’s emotional state

The emotional state of the meeting’s leader influences the whole room. If the leader is angry or upset, the attendees tend to be angry or upset.

If the leader is light, calm, and thoughtful, even a bit jocular, the members tend toward that emotional tilt, which promotes the best out of their brains.

It is incumbent upon leaders of meetings, who influence so many people, to check their own state of anxiety or tension, and to get to calm, thoughtful rationality. Maybe a few slow deep breaths will help, or a visit to the gym before the meeting – whatever it takes.

A simple guideline for order

In the years I have worked with leaders in the Extraordinary Leadership Seminar, I’ve found that one simple guideline for keeping order also helps keep group emotional process in check. It is to speak only to the chair and not to each other. If the chair is in a relatively calm state, this is catching, so the members in attendance tend to think more logically and creatively. They don’t get into groupthink. They get more work accomplished, faster. Our attendees say that meetings don’t go on into the wee hours like they used to.

Dr. Gilbert is the author of a trilogy of books for leadership: Extraordinary Leadership, The Eight Concepts, and The Cornerstone Concept. She is the founding director of The Extraordinary Leadership Seminar.

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