Silence climates and paradigm conflicts in the boardroom

Marilieke Engbers explored how 'the unsaid' shapes decision-making in boardrooms.

05-11-2020 | 12:01

Leaders such as CEO’s continuously make strategic decisions, often in highly dynamic circumstances and have to process a lot of information before deciding. The uncertainty of this COVID-19 period stresses the importance of a thoughtful but sharp decision-making process more than ever. However now with fake news, big-data algorithms that could be biased and social media that offer information that people desire, they risk even more that they ignore important information and inly include what they belief instead of know. Marilieke Engbers explored how the unsaid shapes decision-making in boardrooms. 

Scope: Boards and strategically managed silences

In the wake of several corporate governance scandals, this research delves into why boards fail to prevent such wrongdoing. Given that boards are responsible for the monitoring and safeguarding of an organisation, how do they so often miss malpractice? Why do boardroom processes - both ‘the unsaid’ and the stated - remain such a ‘black box’?

At present scholarly understanding of boardroom processes is limited, particularly around strategic decision-making and monitoring. In part, this can be attributed to the closed nature of boardrooms and the inherent sensitivity of the information discussed. Nonetheless, this research seeks to help close this epistemological void by investigating decision-making and monitoring through participant observation by focusing on what goes unsaid.

By putting the unsaid front and centre, this research strives to capture the difference between what is stated and what is thought. Considerable emphasis is placed on the ‘preconscious’ or, put differently, the taken-for-granted, automatic micro-processes that shape board members’ collective decision-making (macro-processes).

Methodologically speaking, when considering the difficulties inherent in measuring and validating how individual board members make sense of and influence one another (i.e., the study of dynamic sensemaking processes that silently unfold between people), this is easier said than done.

Findings: Using silence to navigate tensions

The author undertook participant observation in 17 different board meetings and conducted 119 interviews with board members. Those interviews focused on what took place during those meetings (i.e., did the participants consciously or preconsciously choose to silence their thoughts and feelings?). The data suggests that since cognitive conflict always risks eliciting a relationship conflict, board members constantly adjust voice and silence when navigating tension.

Furthermore, this research found that board members who consider their individual governance paradigm to be objective can be regarded as ‘paradigm attached’, and they enact a ‘spiral of the unsaid’ when trying to manage conflicts silently. The data also shows that three different roles—the CEO, the chair, and the non-executive—risk eliciting seven types of paradigm attachment conflicts that can quickly devolve into scapegoating and ostracising the least dominant board members.

These findings offer an emergent theory that helps the researcher conceptualise how four ‘silence climates’, the use of silence to strategically manage conflict and cohesiveness, shape a board’s effectiveness.

Practical implications for those who work on or with boards

Beyond the realm of scholarly literature, this research has three practical implications:

  1. Resolving ambiguity around governance or decision-making requires conscious deliberation and non-automatic responses. In other words, silence, or taken-for-granted assumptions, can negatively impact board decision-making.
  2. Informal conversations between sub-groups should be limited as they influence decision-making and cannot be monitored.
  3. Role-expectations should actively be reflected upon to limit false attribution bias and silent speculation. In particular, differing expectations between the chair, the CEO, and a new, inexperienced director need to be avoided.

About the author
Marilieke_EngbersMarilieke Engbers (1969) completed her PhD at the School of Business and Economics at the VU University Amsterdam. She combines her lectures on strategy realization for the VU Finance and Control Program with consulting work for Reconsulting on board effectiveness, self-evaluations, strategy and leadership.
Read more about her research on the preconscious and the unsaid in boardrooms