Mitigate Board Bias

Often avoiding loss is perceived as the safest decision for a parochial school board.  Therefore, doing nothing sometimes seems like the right decision.  However, when nothing changes after a decision is made, sustainability declines because the world is moving on while the parochial school is standing still.

Even when the decision involves taking a step forward there is a bias toward doing what is perceived as safe.  Let us assume that a parochial school could improve the success rate of its students in program X from 45% to 55% (10 students in every 100 served).  Alternatively, it could improve the success rate of its students in program Y from 90% to 100% (10 students in every 100 served).  If the board is told program Y will increase the success rate by 11% and program X will increase the success rate by 22%, the board is biased to choose program Y because there is a perception that an 11% change is less risky than a 22% change even though both ensure that 10 more students per hundred achieve success.  Since program X is perceived as more risky when compared with Y, it is easy to imagine why X might be rejected if presented as program X or do nothing.

In addition, if program X is compared with a more expensive program change that has a higher perceived risk, the board is likely to approve X because it is the best choice of the two available.  The board’s bias is to accept one rather than reject both.  In this case, what might be a bad decision seems good when compared with a high-risk, high-cost decision.

Board members’ wants compound the decision-making challenges and amplify their natural biases.  The average tenure of the average board member on the average board is less than 3 years.  It is hard to learn much about the operation, capabilities, and challenges of an organization and its environment in three years with a little training once a month at board meetings.  Most board members are conscientious and care deeply about the schools they serve.  Most board members want to avoid risk.  Most board members want to see the mission and students succeed, therefore, they want to authorize something to happen.  This creates a bias to do something but to always choose what is perceived as the safest something.

Most of us make good decisions on a regular basis.  However, when we are part of a group responsible for making a decision, our biases can be amplified by others in the group.  When one person, especially someone who is respected by the group or has a leadership position in the group, exhibits a bias, it is easy for the rest of the group to be tempted to adopt that person’s bias.  The influence of the other person can affect the way issues are presented, discussed, and approved.  The influence of others can be a strong social bias.  The challenge is to present issues in ways that mitigate as many biases as possible and encourage the group to keep an open mind.

Next Step:

Ask your board development committee to provide your board members with decision-making training

Ensure that topics on the board agenda are presented free of biases

Eliminate the cultural and historic biases from your board’s decision-making process

Every organization has cultural and historic biases that adversely affect the decision-making process.  A simple example is a school that has just successfully turned itself around.  Prior to the turnaround, money was tight and it was critical to avoid unnecessary risk because with limited sustainability a small mistake can have big consequences.  Its board might have one of two biases or two camps with competing biases.  One bias might be to carefully avoid repeating past problems.  The other might be to feel overly bold because bold moves turned around the situation.  The only safe way forward is through good decisions that take into consideration the future of the mission, needs of the students, and sustainability (durability of the decision).

As the principal, you have a significant influence on each board meeting agenda.  Use your influence to ensure the right topics are discussed.  More importantly, use your influence to ensure the topics are presented, discussed, and approved or rejected for all of the right reasons.

The purpose of this article is to ensure natural or social biases have minimal influence on your school’s decision-making process.  Ideally, this article will help you ensure topics are bias free and decided upon solely based on their value to the mission, students, and impact on sustainability.

Good decision-making is aided by eliminating emotions (biases) and working exclusively with logic.  That is the seductive bias of numbers.  They seem logical but they can be crowded with bias.  However, if one is going to make a logical decision, numbers must be used.  At the same time, the mission and student needs should be at the heart of every decision and they are emotionally charged topics.  Finding the right balance is a challenge faced by every board.

Take It Further:

Create a reporting format to be used by the staff and committees which limits the opportunity for bias and emphasizes the future of the mission, needs of the students, and sustainability (durability of the decision)

Train the board and staff to be able to detect bias and the influence of bias in the presentation, discussion, and decision-making processes


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