"Do the right thing."

It sounds so simple.

But why can it sometimes be so hard to do?

When I'm presenting to co-ops, particularly boards, I'll frequently run group exercises. And in these sessions, I often add a component that asks the participants to make an important or tough choice. It's a great way to stimulate conversation and observe how different people approach challenges.

It's also fascinating to see how in certain group situations, individuals can sometimes talk themselves into what I see as the "wrong" choice. In these groups, and in my general observations of co-ops, I often see one or more of the following scenarios when this happens:

  • People may have different opinions on what the right thing is.
  • They may get so deep into an issue, they have a hard time seeing the bigger picture.
  • Participants, while well intentioned, simply may not know or understand the right choice.
  • Certain members of the group have inadvertently lost sight of the right thing.

We all understand the fundamental difficulty with discussing whether something is "right." It is by definition a subjective matter, a personal decision based on one's background, knowledge, and moral/ethical compass.

So how do we get co-op boards to agree as a group on what's right?

Discuss it! Have open and candid conversations about specific issues and work on coming to a consensus, or at least majority position, on your board's viewpoint. It can be broad or very narrow. For example:

Broad: We will always act in the cooperative's and membership's best interest.

Narrow: We will post our Form 990 on our website.

For me, the most important part of this process is the discussion. The exercise of allowing concerned people to genuinely search for the right answer to a complex question is a powerful thing, and it can generate ideas and realizations that may never have occurred to anyone in the group. The key is to be curious, honest, and respect all views.

The first three scenarios above are good candidates for this sort of group discussion.

Anyone in the "lost sight of the right thing" category, however, may need some outside influence or education to assist them.

If a board has one or more members in this category, then I recommend things like conducting a member and employee satisfaction survey that goes well beyond the standard questions and asks about the board's openness, trustworthiness, inclusiveness, and willingness to accept new ideas. It may be hard to confront, and may require steadfast resolve. But the result may be evidence that the board needs to adjust its direction and hopefully will create a desire to correct course.

Boards that invest the time and effort to honestly define and declare what's right on specific issues can earn a great dividend: increased member trust, better decision-making, and a greater sense of camaraderie. Like any practice, the more you do it, the easier and more ingrained it becomes.

So start small. Bring up a noncontroversial issue you're likely to get agreement on. It's all about the discussion. Then slowly introduce more controversial or contentious topics to address. It may be awkward. It may be uncomfortable. You might even find out things you don't want to know about your fellow board members.

But it may help your co-op and your membership grow stronger.

And, ultimately, it's the right thing to do.

Adam Schwartz is the founder of The Cooperative Way, a consulting firm helping co-ops succeed. He is an author, consultant, educator, speaker, and member-owner of the CDS Consulting Co-op. You can follow him on Twitter @adamcooperative or e-mail him at aschwartz@thecooperativeway.coop.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in #gocoop are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs of NRECA or RE Magazine.