Since mid-March of this year I’ve participated – wearing my governance counsel hat – in numerous virtual work sessions of client governing boards and standing committees, employing the popular Zoom video conferencing platform. Zooming has made it possible for my public and nonprofit clients to reach consensus on a wide range of governance improvement initiatives, such as putting in place updated board committee structures and processes to build and maintain a healthy board-CEO partnership. There’s no question Zoom is a blessing, enabling my clients to significantly strengthen their governing structures and processes without exposing their board and executive team members to Covid-19. But only a couple of weeks into the new world of virtual meetings I became aware of a malady that I think of as the “Zoom Muzzle Syndrome” (ZMS).
The in-person board and committee work sessions that I’ve spent so much of my pre-Covid-19 professional life designing and facilitating are an excellent vehicle for making rational decisions about the complex, high-stakes governance improvement issues your nonprofit or public organization should be addressing (How can we strengthen our board’s self-management capacity? How can we upgrade our board members’ engagement in strategic and operational planning? Etc.). The most effective sessions, in my experience, are characterized by robust discussion of the pros and cons of different approaches, frequent debate (after all, governance is far more art than science), and even occasional heated emotional exchanges (because governance change can feel tremendously threatening).
But soon after moving to 100 percent Zoom virtual governance work sessions back in March, I noticed a dramatic drop in board member engagement: many fewer critical questions and concerns were being raised; and board members were engaging in much less robust discussion and debate about potential improvement initiatives. To be sure, video conferences were proving to be more efficient than traditional in-person work sessions in the sense of getting decisions made faster, but at the expense of the kind of in-depth discussion that leads to rational decisions and fosters the kind of ownership that fuels commitment. I don’t fully understand what it is about virtual meetings that has been muzzling typically opinionated, loquacious and feisty board members who’ve never failed to raise challenging questions in in-person meetings. But I do know that combating ZMS is critical to sound decision making on the governance improvement front.
Since this Zoom-dependent period appears to be far from over – and we should expect continued heavy reliance on video conferencing even after Covid-19 has been vanquished, many if not most of my readers will be interested in what I’ve learned over the last six months about overcoming ZMS in my work as advisor and facilitator. In a nutshell, I’ve had to consciously move from being a traditional presenter and facilitator to a far more assertive role: Stimulator and even Provocateur. In practice, this has meant:
- Preparing for video work sessions by thinking about the issues – in the form of questions and concerns about particular kinds of governance improvements – that have come up frequently over the years as we have explored governance improvement approaches
- And actually getting the issues on the table during the session so that they can be worked through
For example, I recently facilitated a Zoom video work session dedicated to reviewing a recommended new standing committee structure. After going over the functional responsibilities of the recommended new committees, I observed that over the years many board members had questioned whether there was enough trust among board members to enable standing committees to function effectively – an issue frequently raised in similar sessions I’ve facilitated. “What do you think? Is this something we need to talk about?” I asked. And after a couple of participants nodded their heads affirmatively, I proceeded to share practical ways clients of mine had overcome mistrust over the years, including making sure committee reports to the board made clear what factors were considered in coming up with recommendations. What ensued was a robust, thought-provoking discussion that I’m sure wouldn’t have occurred if I hadn’t made a point of raising the issue of trust myself and soliciting participants’ opinions. Video conferences will always be vulnerable to ZMS, but if you’re willing to make the effort, you can overcome the syndrome.