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Chartered Director

3 ways psychology helps to run a successful board

03 Sep 2018

In June, the Chartered Director community welcomed Neil Gilbride, Lecturer in Education (Leadership, Psychology, Inclusion) at the University of Gloucestershire, in a webinar called "Thinking in a Complex World." 

Neil's webinar covered aspects of psychology, adult development stages and perceptions that relate to directors and business leaders, using examples of how these apply to your everyday management and board structure. A number of listeners got in touch with us after the session for more information, so we've invited Neil to share his thoughts on how directors can use knowledge of psychology and development stages to run a successful board.

If you missed the webinar, you can access the recording here.


What are adult development stages?

When we talk about adult development stages, we are going beyond styles or preferences: Adult developmental stage is the cognitive instrument for making sense of the world around us. In short - a fundamental building block of cognitive architecture.

The stages mediate how individuals process, and therefore respond, to incoming information. An individual in one stage will make sense of the situation in a fundamentally different way to someone in a different stage; they will focus on different factors presented within the situation; the degree to which others are involved in the solution will be different; and the process by which they arrive to a solution will be different .

How this relates to board leadership

Having an understanding of these stages relates to board leadership in three key aspects:

Empathy: Sometimes, disagreements can occur because we're not sure why there might be a difference of opinion based on the same information. I believe that understanding that differences of perspective, approach and solution can arise - not just from a different style but from a fundamentally different way of constructing reality - can help directors to empathise with those around them. Understanding developmental stages allows leaders to appreciate differences of opinion and perspective can arise from, and to better understand, others point of view. 

This can help board members in meetings – know that we are coming at the problem, not just from different backgrounds, but from fundamentally different ways of making sense of the world, can allow leaders to be grounded and understanding of the world view of others, whilst also supporting them to communicate more appropriately.

Appreciation: Appreciation of the adult developmental stages allows us to understand just how difficult some tasks that we expect adults to complete really are. 

We overestimate what adults are capable of and underestimate the difficulty of some of the tasks that we assign to adults. For example, when businesses ask employees to use their initiative, yet stick to company guidelines, they are asking them to bring together a set of rules with a set of internal values. This is an exceptionally high-end skill. Working with others in a genuinely mutual way is another post-conventional skill that is expected of most adults, yet only capable by a few.  Despite what adult development tells us, we place the demands on these skills whether this is in a small day to day task or a huge strategic project.

When assigning projects or strategic decisions, board members should ask themselves:

  • Is this a skill that this person currently possesses? 
  • How do we develop individuals to work in this way?
  • What support and structures can we put in place to help them reach our joint expectations?
  • And, if urgent, who has these capabilities already so they can hit the ground running?

Critique: Adult development stages can be a great basis to provide insight and critique into the fashion and fads of organisational development. For example, the trend towards flattening hierarchies and giving people autonomy: This will work for some, probably post conventional, individuals. However, such organisation structures might significantly undermine the capabilities that those at other stages have to offer their organisation. Equally, whilst strict rules will support some stages, they will stifle others.

What adult development literature can do is allow us to ask questions of how we design our organisations as holding environment for anyone of any developmental stage to thrive and give their best work .



Get Involved

To find out more about the psychology of board leadership, visit the IoD's Information and Advisory Service (IAS) and explore the extensive library of related factsheets here.