Recent University of Michigan research reveals that, even more than expected, an organization’s culture dictates how ethical or unethical behavior is tolerated in the workplace. The research report cites three studies that examine whether employees are willing to turn in colleagues for unethical behavior. The finding: When managers and colleagues are willing to break the rules in the pursuit of goals, employees are less likely to report other wrongdoing.

My first response to this article was “uh, duh.” People are people, after all. We are social beings who are more influenced by others than we’d like to admit. Then I began thinking how this negative tendency might play out in a boardroom. Does the social situation of working on a board influence how difficult issues are concluded? Beyond just the oft-discussed phenomenon of groupthink, can subtle social pressures lead boards to make decisions that teeter on the edge of unethical?

By and large, board members are a pretty independent group of individuals. Their presence on a board is often the result of a lifetime of leadership in other areas. So you might think these are people perfectly suited to resist the pull of the crowd. Talk with board members, however, and you often find that the group has made consensus an unspoken goal. And when issues arise that have hazy ethical implications — for example, when the decision is made to cut the library budget or defer campus maintenance or increase the draw on the endowment — these leaders face the same difficulties everyone else does.

There are a couple ways boards can make their best decisions:

  1. Make sure that the voice of dissent isn’t being silenced by consensus. There’s a saying about marriage: “If you and your partner never disagree, one of you is redundant.” How much truer is that of a board of several dozen individuals who always come to the same conclusions.
  2. Reduce the haze. Often board members defer to those “in the know.” “The finance committee knows about finances, right? So who am I to disagree?” But there are basic principles that govern school governance — In Trust is dedicated to naming and proclaiming those principles — and all board members should know the right questions to ask. Asking the right questions can open a window to committee-level deliberations and shine a light on differing opinions.

Just knowing and being aware that group dynamics can warp the process helps boards make good decisions. As G.I. Joe used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.”

Image credit: davidd