Good Governance: The Origin Of Civility

Be sure to disagree in an agreeable way.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the word civility. And unless you live under a rock, you can likely understand why . Frankly there’s a significant lack of it in the public sector.

It concerns me, and my guess is that it concerns you, no matter what your party affiliation. What does this lack of civility mean for us as a country? For how we will govern ourselves in the future? What lessons are we teaching our children? What lessons are we learning ourselves?

Surprisingly enough, this same word – civility – has been surfacing more and more as we think about our work with credit unions and others in the nonprofit sector.

Because I’m a life-long learner, I decided to take myself back to school on the notion of civility itself. The word’s origins stretch back to the late 14th century, when the French used the word “civilite” to denote the “status of a citizen,” and the English translated the word as “courtesy.” But it is the Latin derivative of the word that surprised and delighted me the most – “civitatem” was defined as both “the art of governing” and “courteousness.”

Isn’t that perfect? Isn’t that what we all need on our boards – a little more focus on the “art of governing” and more “courteousness?”

I won’t bore you with a long list of boards behaving badly, but I would like to share with you a few examples that we’ve experienced recently. We’ve:

  • seen board members texting each other, under the table, in the middle of board meetings;
  • interviewed board members who said they felt like they “had a target on their back”;
  • witnessed others interrupting their colleagues and shouting to get their points across during the middle of meetings; and
  • heard staff describe conversations where board members are approaching them to get the “dirt” on their CEO’s performance.

I’m not suggesting behavior like this is rampant or that it exists on all boards, nor am I suggesting that a normal amount of give and take, or even conflict on a board isn’t healthy. It is. In fact, boards that experience absolutely no conflict, or those that are in complete harmony, are just as dysfunctional as boards that are always in conflict (see the graphic at the beginning of this article). There is a balance. Just like in a good marriage, an appropriate degree of conflict is necessary. You just need to be sure that you’re disagreeing in an agreeable way.

But even if your board is the healthiest board in the world, our research indicates that there is still room for improvement…for greater civility…to sharpen your focus on the “art of governance.”

One in five board members that we surveyed for the 2016 Quantum Governance Compendium reported that their board is doing a less-than-effective job at building a leadership culture of trust, and that same survey reports that less than 25 percent said that they are very effective at asking the hard questions that need to be asked.

So, then, what does that mean? Look around you. One in five of your colleagues isn’t feeling the love; a high level of trust is not resonating at the board level. And only one in four of your colleagues thinks that you’re asking the right questions in the boardroom.

I know. This post sounds like it’s full of doom and gloom. That certainly wasn’t my intent. But it is a wake-up call. Increase the civility in your boardroom – in the Latin sense of the word. Be more courteous. Sharpen your focus on the “art of governance,” while you push yourselves to have the hard conversations that leading a credit union in today’s competitive environment demands.

I am not suggesting that you practice the “art of governance” at the risk of foregoing your responsibilities as a board member or that you should stifle your dissenting opinions to keep the peace. The “art of governance” is not about being nice and passive in your boardrooms.

But, don’t confuse strong leadership with being discourteous, unprofessional or disrespectful.

The true art of governance is about being in the middle of the bell curve, with a good and healthy balance of open and challenging discourse in an environment where everyone plays respectfully in the proverbial sandbox.

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