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10.4 Understanding the “Sociology” of the Board

A board’s primary role is a fiduciary one. It is not surprising, therefore, that most board processes are designed with this objective in mind—to ensure management is accountable to the board and the board to shareholders. Recent reforms also reflect this bias toward the fiduciary role of the board. Consider, for example, the focus on greater disclosure, director independence, executive sessions, increased communications with major shareholders, and on separating the offices of chairman and CEO. All these changes are aimed at providing greater transparency and increased accountability. They do not, however, address the deeper issue of how the board can function better as a group.

No group can operate effectively without a well-defined, shared understanding of its primary role and accountability. The ongoing debate about the fundamental purpose and accountability of the modern corporation has created a problem for boards as a whole, as well as for individual directors—what behaviorists call a heightened sense of role ambiguity and, in some instances, increased role conflict. For example, while recent regulatory reforms promote enhanced transparency and accountability, they also may well increase directors’ anxiety about their ability to effectively carry out their responsibilities to say nothing about their personal exposure to legal and other challenges. If true, the outcome may be opposite of what is intended—a decrease in proactive conduct and more conservative “defensive” behavior on the part of directors, individually and as a group. And while recent reforms may clarify some of the formal rules that govern board composition and operation, little attention has been paid to what impact these changes are likely to have on the unstated or informal rules that govern much of actual board behavior.

Formal Versus Informal Rules

All group behavior, including that of boards, is governed by formal and informal rules. Formal rules include explicit policies about how often they meet, how they structure their meetings, who participates on what committees, and how issues are decided by discussion and vote. As with many groups, however, board behavior is also governed by a set of powerful unstated informal rules or norms. For example, asking management “tough, penetrating” questions about performance is formally encouraged and seen as part of a director’s duty. At the same time, if a director pursues an issue too long or too vigorously, he or she may be seen to violate any one of a number of unstated rules about what the other directors consider “effective” board membership.For more on formal versus informal rules in the boardroom, see Carter and Lorsch (2004), chap. 8. See also Khurana and Pick (2005), pp. 1259–1285.

This is one explanation for why so many boardroom votes are unanimous. While it is acceptable to occasionally cast a dissenting vote, if a board member repeatedly votes “against” his or her peers, however, he or she may be asked whether he or she is “for” or “against” management, and whether he or she has a hidden agenda. Norms also influence individual behavior after the group has reached a decision. For example, many boards operate under an unstated rule that directors should not criticize or reexamine the board’s past decisions.

What happens when a director violates an unstated norm? While the consequences for breaching formal board rules are fairly clear, the punishment for violating informal rules is less well defined. Because informal rules are implicit, corrective action primarily takes the form of exercising “peer” pressure. Since directors generally do not interact very much outside the boardroom, any exercise of corrective peer pressure is mainly confined to the boardroom itself, and therefore governed by the board’s prevailing set of group norms. What is more, since directors do not have the power to directly remove ineffective or confrontational peers, the scope of such corrective action is limited. And, unless the breach is so disruptive that he has no alternative, the chair, especially if he is also the CEO, will likely hesitate before confronting the offending director.

These two factors—the difficulty directors have discussing, questioning, or reconsidering the appropriateness of various norms and their uncertainty about the repercussions of breaching formal or informal rules—also explain why boards have tended to search “among their own”—that is, other CEOs with board experience—for new directors. Potentially embarrassing problems can be avoided when boards choose candidates who likely already understand the “rules,” especially the informal norms, that govern board conduct.Carter and Lorsch (2004), chap. 7.

Group Influences on Individual Behavior

It is well known that individuals behave differently in groups than they behave when they are alone. In a group, much of our individual behavior is determined by the behavior of other group members. In a board setting, this raises an important question: What happens when an individual director’s beliefs and opinions differ from those of the other members of the group? Does he vote according to his conscience, or will he likely compromise and vote with the majority in the face of real or perceived peer pressure? This dilemma occurs more often than one might think. Consider the following questions directors routinely face: Should I go along with the compensation committee’s recommendation for a substantial increase for the the CEO even though, deep down, I believe he is already paid too much? Do I vote “no” on the aggressive debt restructuring proposal when other members of the board clearly are for the proposal? How do I act when a senior board member who has mentored me before pulls me aside and urges me to go along with the majority for the sake of “unity” on the board? As these questions illustrate, group norms do not only strongly influence individual behavior—they may even dictate what perceptions, beliefs, and judgments are deemed appropriate. It is not surprising, therefore, that new board members often accept the judgment of more senior directors and choose to vote with them. This also explains why the current focus on director independence may well be misplaced; it has little or no relation to the underlying sociological issues that shape board behavior.

The above examples also illustrate how the presence of other more experienced and powerful group members can discourage individuals from participating up to their full potential. Sociologists label this phenomenon “social inhibition.” It is expressed in several different behaviors: loafing (i.e., minimizing effort while hiding behind the work of others), self-handicapping (e.g., knowingly accepting a very difficult challenge to avoid the risk of failing at a simple task), or conforming simply to get along. All of these behaviors can be found in the boardroom, and all must explicitly be addressed to create a high performance board.