Principles of Board Ettiquette

Do you serve on a board or committee?

How many times have you been in a theater, or listening to a speaker, or perhaps even at church on Sunday morning, when all of a sudden someone’s cell phone goes off, usually playing Stars and Stripes and complete with the cannonade? Annoying to say the least. Or have you seen impatient people behind an older couple race by and coming close to knocking them over? Or (equal time here) an older couple stop in a narrow doorway to discuss the 1929 stock market crash unaware of the crush of the crowd behind them? The hard fact is that even good people can be inconsiderate of others at times. 

People can be inconsiderate at board meetings too, often with more serious consequences. Have you been at a board meeting when someone has droned on and on about something no one really cares about? Everyone is in such a hurry to close the discussion that the decisions made are of dubious quality. I call this the “lets-just-decide-something-so-we-can-get-out-of-here” syndrome. 

There are several principles to a better meeting. First: Be Prepared. Have you done your homework? Try this ratio: the amount of discussion you contribute should be in measure to the amount of homework you’ve done on the subject. No homework, little if any discussion. Talk about shortening a meeting! This is one reason why an agenda sent to members at least a week before the meeting is a must. Everyone has an opinion on all kinds of issues. However, an informed opinion requires preparation. The quality of decisions made rests in large part on the amount of preparation put into the topic. If you are not getting an agenda beforehand, suggest to the chair of the board/committee that one be sent to you. 

Second: Respect The Place. Is my contribution better given here at the meeting or to a couple people before/after the meeting? Most often a board is designed to set policy and make decisions. It is usually not a work group where the details of a project should be discussed. Why? Because board’s are frequently populated by 9-12 people, way too many people to discuss things well. Social studies have shown that in such a group many people will “check-out” and the group will be “carried” by only 3 or 4 (called “social loafing,” great term).  Respect both the purpose of the meeting as well as people’s time together and delegate (with power to act and spend within set limits) a small group to take care of a work project and then have them report back to the larger board/committee. 

Third: Seek To Understand. Check to see if you understand what the other attendees are saying. Ask yourself these questions: Am I on the topic the board is discussing right now? Am I simply repeating what someone else has said? Am I reporting hearsay or do I have some new sources of information that I can bring to the table? It can be very helpful to use a reflective statement like: “What I hear you saying is….Is that right?” 

These three principles will help to streamline meetings, enhance the quality of the decisions made, and hopefully get us home before the next glacial age begins.


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