How to increase productivity on your board

Bored Board

I can’t remember when teambuilding shifted from a touchy feely thing to what organizational behavior expert Patrick Lencioni refers to as “the one sustainable competitive advantage that has been largely untapped” in his book Overcoming the 5 Dysfunctions of a Team.

Most of us are a part of one team or another: in the workplace, school PTO, any committee, or the boardroom.

Lack of trust, fear of conflict, and an unwillingness to commit, or embrace accountability are the challenges that Lencioni addresses in his book. When these conditions exist, we humans tend to fudge results and continue down a safe path.

Board Development

When considering board development, many boards and ED’s focus on roles and responsibilities, fundraising, governance, and leadership development.

They are important. However, if you want the hard work and advancements that you make in these areas to stick, paying attention to team dynamics is essential.

Google’s research is paving the way.




Recently, I discovered a study conducted by Google, What Google Learned From Its Quest to Build the Perfect Team. I was intrigued and looked for more information. 

I found it. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Time, Charles Duhigg expands on the Google study in his latest bookSmarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Productivity in Life and Business.

It’s based on data, data, data! Hard to deny its validity.

Here’s what I learned that may be useful for your nonprofit board or staff team. A DIY approach can work if you take it seriously.

How to increase productivity on your board

The golden nugget is that the success of ALL effective and productive teams comes down to group norms; and although norms vary from group to group, they must tie back to two fundamental principles.

1.  Psychological safety

In effective teams, everyone, note everyone, must speak up and be heard. It’s when team members make mistakes and admit them, “I don’t know” or “I screwed up”, or are able to express uncertainty or vulnerability that a team performs at its best.

The key – the leader must model this first or it won’t take hold.

It’s a messy process – addressing concerns or disagreements in the moment take more time. Turns out, that’s better than a perfectly run meeting that keeps everyone on track. Boom, boom, boom. Done!

A team leaders skill and ability to create safety is attribute #1 of building the perfect team.

2.  Social sensitivity

When the leader is able to sense how a team member is feeling in the moment, it’s a game changer.

Conceptual image of a businessman in shirtsleeves holding his hands protectively above a line of wooden cubes with words - We listen.

Is someone upset or sad, skeptical or angry? 

It matters.

Good news. Google’s data assures us that this can be learned.

These principles are not new. The benefits of emotional intelligence have been well documented for decades.

Applying it to teams and backing it up with 4 years of data collection gives it a boost, especially coming out of Silicon Valley.

Is your board an effective team?

Consider these questions.

  • Does everyone speak up at meetings? If not, why might that be?
  • When mistakes are made, is there a norm that makes it ok to own it? Does the chair or ED model this behavior?
  • Does the chair notice nonverbals? Tone of voice, body language, facial expressions that offer a clue as to why someone has become quiet? Then is she able to name it and bring the person back into the room?

For me, the most disturbing thing is when a board member doesn’t understand what’s being discussed, or even the basics of what the nonprofit really does or is trying to achieve (not uncommon) and they are too embarrassed to ask questions or engage.

business man and woman hide

Fix this and you’ll be amazed at the increased engagement.

Where to begin?

First, I suggest reading the article that sums up the data. If it resonates, move on to Duhigg’s book. The chapter on Teams and Saturday Night Live is fun and compelling.

If the chair/ED team come together to consider these, you’re more likely to be successful. I take that back, that’s the only way it will work.

The research shows that effective teams have nothing to do with intelligence, business acumen, or an impressive degree; and everything to do with feeling safe enough to speak up and be heard.

With a dose of empathetic understanding.

That is how you tap the collective intelligence of any group.

Does your board exhibit these norms?


Tricia Dell is a fundraising coach, facilitator, and strategist for nonprofit organizations. Learn more at and follow her on twitter @triciadell.

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