Leadership Insights: Silence is not Affirmation

Author: Lowell Aplebaum, FASAE, CAE, CPF
Master Facilitator, Vision & Strategy Catalyst, Building Board, Staff, & Volunteer Leaders

The room was silent. He could hear the hotel staff vacuuming in the hall as he paused. He’d just presented the Big Idea to the board, and they weren’t saying anything. He looked to the Chair who shrugged, looked around the room, and said “Anyone got any questions?” Silence. “Ok then, looks like a ‘go’,” the Chair said, and the group moved on to the next order of business. 

Six months later, there are problems, big problems with the Big Idea. In a heated discussion among the Board, the Chair-Elect says “I never agreed to that…”

Uggh. How many Executives and Board members take silence as an agreement in moments just like these?

What if we flip our narrative and acknowledge silence as the absence of any indication of whether or not a group is on the same page; that interaction and response are necessary for there to be a partnership and common understanding on an issue. Dialogue can be an uncomfortable thing to ask for, especially if a group is not used to providing it, yet it is critical to fulfilling the board’s duty of care. With each issue presented, the board can articulate a variety of responses, each of which can help inspire additive learning and engagement with the issue under consideration. Having a vocabulary to use for these responses can help Board members articulate where they are on an issue in a neutral way. We suggest asking board members to articulate where they stand using one of the following terms:

Reservation is an indication of deep concern. The person responding with reservation should be encouraged to articulate, with specificity, the concerns they have so the Board can engage in further exploration of the issue.

Clarification is an indication more information is needed. The person responding with clarification may be unsure of the path forward or need more information to feel confident the path is the correct one for the organization.

Confirmation is an indication of support for the decision. The person responding with confirmation is supportive of the direction being proposed.

Affirmation is an indication of strong support for the decision. The person responding with affirmation is an advocate of the issue and can be relied upon to be an ambassador for communicating in support of the issue outside of the boardroom.

As your board uses this language to express their stance on an issue, the presenter of the issue can respond with inquiry and further information or know they have the full support of the board to move forward.

There is an additional fifth dimension that should remain to be used with some frequency – Celebration. Too often, we withhold positive affirmation on accomplishments until the ‘end’ of an initiative. By encouraging leadership to recognize and celebrate iterative accomplishments – steps along the way – you establish a positive mindset of progress. These small, regular celebrations also make the hard conversation when an item goes off track easier since a baseline of recognition has been built.

 Some organizations put these response options on their board agenda – and other laminate them onto a card for use at each meeting. No matter the methodology, structuring response options clarifies the key responsibility of partnership in input and resource commitment that a Board needs to fulfill. Without their voice, without their input, silence serves not as an affirmation of direction but as an abandonment of governance responsibility. 

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