Effective Communication in the Board Room


How we communicate is a matter of personal style that has its roots in how and where we were raised, our gender, and other life experiences. Even though we all do it everyday in countless interactions with people, we may or may not be completely mindful that how we communicate will get us what we need or want. To be an effective communicator, it’s important to understand the power of words, body language, and communication styles. Not only to understand your own style, but to be aware of different communication qualities among other people.

Max Saito is an associate professor of communications at Westfield State University and a member of River Valley Market’s board in Northampton, Mass. His unique experience as a communication professional and food co-op board member has led him to give workshops on how boards interact. In his experience, distrust and misunderstandings arise on boards when people have different ideas and assumptions about what effective communication should look like. From Saito’s perspective, finding ways to collaborate successfully is a critical part of board leadership.

A good place to start, according to Saito, is to consider that there are basically two types of communication styles. People tend to have either a “sensitive” approach or a “task oriented” way of working with others. These styles can come into conflict when challenges and problems arise.

Those with a sensitive approach value thoughtfulness and respect of others. That’s a wonderful quality for teamwork; yet people with this style can also be conflict avoidant. If they perceive someone in the group is being negative or disrespectful, the sensitive person may shut down. Therefore, by not saying what’s not going well, sensitive people can become defensive, or hurt group process by allowing tensions to simmer by not addressing important issues.

Task oriented communicators like to feel responsible and productive; they love to “get things done” by being straightforward about the work at hand. They can be fantastic leaders, but they may stumble when their messages are perceived as harsh. Task-oriented people may feel isolated and frustrated when they believe their efforts are unsupported or unappreciated, hampering the board’s effectiveness.

“As board members part of what we have to do is to develop our own communication norms,” Saito said, by creating ground rules that are based on open and respectful exchanges. Having an understanding of different communication styles can help everyone realize that most people have the best of intentions.

One of those norms established by the River Valley Market board is to limit their email exchanges. Saito found that email exchanges can quickly escalate to debates, especially for complex topics, that could generate negative reactions or hard feelings. “It’s risky to have a dialogue or debate via email,” he said. People might think email is more efficient, but Saito said that face-to-face is actually the more effective way to communicate on multifaceted issues. The board has agreed, and since they instituted this rule of communication it’s been working well for them. “It takes time to adjust and be mindful, but it has had an impact.”

Can making your own pizza promote world peace? Find the answer in Max Saito’s charming article Max’s Peace Pizza, For a better world, starting at home (pdf).

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