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Is Canadian Culture Preventing Constructive Dialogue?

January 17, 2023

Posted in: WATSON Views

It’s that time of year again. Endless emails outlining the many things boards should focus on this year: 5 things for directors to consider…, 3 practices for 2023…, 10 topics facing boards this year… As directors and board advisors we are highly attuned to the ever-growing list of mission critical issues boards need to focus on and the challenges this growing list poses to the execution of the board’s responsibilities. With increased business complexity, demanding board stewardship requirements, and the need for more board oversight, the director role is becoming more demanding, and more complex.  

So, as we enter 2023, we have ONE thing to share. From our observation advising and partnering with hundreds of boards, it’s not about what the board does, but about how it does its work.   

Over the last year, we’ve heard about, and seen a culture of distinctly Canadian collegiality in boardrooms that limits constructive dialogue. It’s not simply that we’re too nice or too polite, it’s that in this highly complex context, individual directors are not actively sharing reservations, concerns, and alternative views, and boards are not having the quality of conversation they need to make important decisions. This isn’t intentional and doesn’t come from a bad place. It is, in part, attributed to a Canadian culture that avoids conflict and pursues consensus–perhaps too quickly–at the expense of intellectual curiosity and debate. In some cases, lack of debate may be an indicator that more work is needed to foster genuine inclusion at the board table. 

We believe there are opportunities for boards to embrace more openness and healthy tension to elevate the level of constructive dialogue and the board’s value-add. For critical discussions, we see the value of intentional dissent that embraces opposing points of view and enables directors to disagree and build on each other’s points. Intentional dissent is a productive way to introduce friction into the decision-making process. It’s an important step to root out blind spots, kick the tires of recommendations, and bring different perspectives on issues and options to get to the best decision. To be fully satisfied with their decision, boards should not only be satisfied with the decision itself, but the process to get there. 

Regardless of the issue on the agenda–from cyber, talent, and DEI to supply chain, energy transition, and recession–the quality of the board’s contribution depends on the quality of the conversation. And given the challenges facing organizations and boards this year, strategic conversations require that boards embolden all directors to weigh in on context, options, and paths forward. Here are some ways the best boards, chairs, and directors we know combat Canadian collegiality: 


Boards Chairs Directors

  • Explore and advance board diversity with the lens of respectful challenge (e.g., are directors bringing similar worldviews and experiences; is the board missing experiential or generational diversity factors). 
  • As you advance diversity, don’t forget about inclusion and psychological safety; you won’t get the full benefit of diverse perspectives if don’t you have a culture where all directors feel safe to contribute.  
  • Provide feedback to management on topics and recommendations in the moment; don’t wait for in camera sessions. 
  • Try to broaden management’s thinking by asking how they got to a recommendation, what options were explored, or how related strategic or risk considerations weighed in. 
  • Check in on progress through board and director evaluation processes. 
  • Don’t be rude. Be careful not to swing too far on the pendulum, just encourage more active challenge in a direct and respectful way. 

  • Prompt directors to intentionally share different perspectives (e.g., “may I hear another point of view…”). 
  • Use your in camera sessions to frame the spirit of discussions before meetings (e.g., “let’s really push each other’s thinking in our discussion on X today”) and check in on progress at the end of meetings.  
  • Manage the agenda wisely. Ensure there is time and space for this level of discussion on the board’s agenda and welcome it explicitly, while recognizing that you can’t have robust debate on all agenda items. Be disciplined about when this type of dialogue is most important.  
  • Encourage directors to share how they show up as individuals to help understand where their peers are coming from and how best to engage with them. Do they think out loud? Do they need time and space to reflect on things? Are they visual or verbal thinkers?  
  • Use the director evaluation process to gather and provide feedback on the nature of director contributions. 

  • Prepare for board meetings with this lens in mind. Explore issues from different angles with a plan to ask questions and share perspectives that you don’t expect from others. 
  • Adopt devil’s advocate thinking in the boardroom, including when management is present (e.g., “what if we looked at this from a different perspective…”). 
  • Reflect on your own experience from your professional life and board work and apply this in an additive way. Share lessons learned from a different context, test ideas, make connections, and push the thinking beyond what is presented. 
  • Reflect and consider:  
    • Do you encourage or discourage peers from bringing their true views forward?  
    • Are you personally holding back from contributing your full knowledge and perspective? 
    • How you can contribute to overcoming these barriers, both individually and systemically? 

We often hear that the best directors ask hard questions in a “soft” way. They put tough issues and different perspectives on the table in a way that others can hear. Their tone and style complement and enhance their contributions. They are polite and collegial, and skilled at sharing different perspectives, or challenging the status quo. They are skilled at depersonalizing feedback and instead focusing on ideas and options. This level of EQ often requires time and experience, superb role models, and high-quality feedback to truly master. It also requires courage. At the board level, it requires someone to call attention to the problem to start to see a shift in behaviour. Getting used to more intentional dissent and encouraging different views can be a slow and uncomfortable progression and one that should be monitored and acknowledged.  

All boards make decisions today that will shape the future of their organizations. For boards that practise good governance, enhancing the quality of dialogue and decision-making in the boardroom is an opportunity to go beyond the mechanics and lists of oversight areas and add real value in shaping their organization’s future. This one thing will not be easy, but it will have significant impact on the board’s effectiveness in the year ahead.  

Wishing you a safe and spirited 2023.