Board-Savvy Superintendent

The Zoom Muzzle Syndrome
BY DOUG EADIE /School Administrator, December 2020

SINCE MID-MARCH, I’ve participated in numerous virtual work sessions of client school boards and standing committees, employing the popular Zoom video conferencing platform. Zooming has made it possible for school boards to reach consensus on a range of governance improvement initiatives, often contributing to a healthy board-superintendent partnership.

There’s no question Zoom is a blessing, enabling clients to strengthen their governing structures and processes without exposing their board and executive team members to the COVID-19 virus. 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,” or ZMS.

The in-person board and committee work sessions that I’ve spent so much of my pre-pandemic professional life facilitating are an excellent vehicle for making rational decisions about the complex, high-stakes governance improvement issues each school district should be addressing. For example, how can we strengthen our board’s self-management capacity? How can we upgrade our board members’ engagement in strategic and operational planning?

Engagement Evaporates

Soon after moving full-time to Zoom-based governance work sessions, 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 de-bate 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 this was happening at the expense of the 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 muzzle typically opinionated, loquacious and feisty school board members who’ve never failed to raise challenging questions during in-person meetings. But I do know that combating ZMS is critical to sound decision making on the governance improvement front.

Zoom-dependent work life appears far from over. I also believe we can expect continued heavy reliance on video conferencing even after COVID-19 has been vanquished. As such, I am sharing a couple of things I’ve learned over the last eight months about overcoming Zoom Muzzle Syndrome in my work as adviser and facilitator.

Outside Stimulation

In a nutshell, I’ve had to consciously move from being a traditional presenter and facilitator to a far more assertive role as 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 improvement strategies; and

»Actually laying out the issues during the session so that they can be worked through.

For example, I recently facilitated a Zoom-based 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 school board members had questioned whether there was enough trust among board members to enable standing committees to function effectively.

“What do you think? Is this something we need to talk about?” I asked. After a couple of participants nodded 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 developing 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 always will be vulnerable to ZMS, but if you’re willing to make the effort, you can overcome the ill effects.
DOUG EADIE is president and CEO of Doug Eadie & Co. in Clearwater, Fla. Twitter: @DougEadieCo. He blogs at, where an earlier version of this column appeared.