“Conflict is inevitable, combat is optional.” – Max Lucado, US author
As a board director, I find there’s nothing like robust boardroom debate to get me really engaged. After all, that’s what we’re there for, isn’t it? To wrestle with big, important issues; to help guide the organizations we care about around dangers and into a bright future; to make sound decisions in the interests of all our stakeholders.
But what about when the debate is not so healthy, when it degenerates into disruptive conflict? What are the consequences? What’s the impact on the issues we discuss, the guidance we offer, and the decisions we make?
And how can we deal with it?
It’s often said that ‘the board speaks with one voice,’ meaning that the board publicly expresses a consensus view. Getting to that consensus can be a messy process involving lively discussion, opposing points of view, and robust debate. This process often leads to a certain degree of tension.
Tension in the boardroom is healthy when it manifests as an open exchange of information, discomfort, discussion of difficult issues, questioning, energy and momentum, diverse perspectives, and engagement.
“Healthy tension is essential. That’s what good governance is built on. I want to encourage that tension.” - Excerpt from ICSA Henley Interviews
But the tension is no longer healthy when it turns into an acrimonious dispute or descends into disruptive conflict.
“It can be surprisingly quick for tension to escalate to the point of being disruptive and damaging. It can happen in the blink of an eye.” - Excerpt from ICSA Henley Interviews
Disruptive conflict shows itself in a number of different ways, from subtle to direct or even violent.
We’re often quick to explain our differences as personality conflicts, but, in reality, most conflicts are due to more than just differences of personal style. In the boardroom, conflict is most likely to emerge when decisions are being made, and it’s often linked to interpersonal relationships, historical issues such as a change in board structure, or the addition of a new board member who is seen as ‘rocking the boat.’
Understanding the source of a conflict helps us to manage it. Experts have identified five sources of conflict. In my experience, any one of these five sources can give rise to boardroom conflict. In many cases, more than one of these sources is at play.
A good board is one with managed tension. It will work hard to preserve the possibility of constructive dialogue. On the other hand, a dysfunctional board will allow unresolved tension to fester and escalate into disruptive conflict.
Disruptive conflict is most likely to occur when disagreements and concerns are left unresolved for too long. When disagreements between board members become personal, it becomes difficult or impossible to find any middle ground. Unfortunately, these conflicts are often left to simmer in the hope they will go away.
A board’s culture profoundly affects the way it manages conflict. The following practices all contribute to a board culture that is conducive to preventing and mitigating boardroom conflict.
Clear roles and responsibilities. Clarifying the roles of the board and management is crucial to preventing structural conflict. Failing to articulate these roles just invites disputes. This information needs to be shared with new directors of course, but it wouldn’t hurt to regularly remind existing directors as well.
Orderly board processes. Efficient procedures build an environment that encourages discussion and debate. In contrast, disorganized, chaotic meetings create confusion and misunderstandings that give rise to frustration and anger. When meeting time runs short, discussion is compromised, and we are left feeling we had no opportunity to participate.
Well-managed information flow. A good information system supports a healthy bond between the board and management, enabling directors to fulfill their oversight duties and make sound decisions. It helps ensure the board has the facts necessary for a healthy discussion and debate – and that all board directors have access to the same set of facts. I’ve often observed that unequal access to information can lead to misunderstandings and conflict.
Culture of inquiry. Constructive inquiry, discussion, debate, and decision making require a conscious effort to develop a boardroom culture based on collegiality and civility. When the board environment is comfortable and the tone encourages creative problem solving, we can challenge assumptions, ask probing questions, and make suggestions without fear of creating disruptive conflict.
Good interpersonal communications. A good guiding principle for directors is ‘Seek first to understand, and then to be understood.’ It’s a mistake to assume that we know how others interpret what we are trying to say. People exposed to the same information can end up with completely different impressions and ideas. As directors, we can practice good communications by balancing inquiry and advocacy, being aware of our assumptions, and actively listening to each other.
“Alpha members of the board [are] not listening to others or not ‘hearing’ them, especially women (or those perceived to be of no importance); [there is] lack of empathy or ability to appreciate the motives of others.” - Excerpt from CEDR-IFC Survey Responses
Common goals. A strategic plan that clearly articulates an organization’s goals and objectives goes a long way to reduce the potential for conflict. I have found that, when the board consists of directors who were involved in developing the current strategy, there tends to be far more agreement about strategic choices and priorities. By the way, that’s one reason why new directors can create conflict – they are less personally invested in the strategic plan because they didn’t have a hand in creating it.
A skilled board chair. An effective board chair is critical to managing conflict. Their effectiveness comes from clarity about their role, their personal integrity, and how they understand and use facilitation techniques. Research shows that a board chair who takes no action to resolve a conflict will actually end up being blamed as a source of the conflict! Available techniques for the board chair include acknowledging concerns during board meetings, holding face-to-face conversations, and depersonalizing tension by reminding directors of their higher purpose.
“Factionalism [exists] on the board, and an unwillingness on the part of the chair to demand that members pull together—instead [there is] much manipulation and backroom dealing.” - Excerpt from CEDR-IFC Survey Responses
Board evaluation. Regular board self-evaluations, assessments by an independent third party, and board retreats all provide excellent platforms for identifying interests, surfacing issues, promoting discussion, and facilitating collaborative decision making. Peer-to-peer director evaluations can also be an effective tool – these tend to be well-used in corporate boardrooms, but less so on non-profit boards.
Dispute resolution. Dispute resolution techniques borrowed from negotiation and mediation can help develop a process for arriving at consensus and making decisions. As directors, we could all benefit from familiarity with conflict resolution processes to help determine when outside assistance might be helpful. A governance question for directors to ask is, ‘Do we have adequate mechanisms to resolve disputes that may arise?’
Serving on a board where there is disruptive conflict is hard on individual directors. Experts offer the following tips:
A boardroom is full of individuals with the best intentions – but, when disagreements arise, it can also be a hotbed for conflict. Wherever people with strong convictions work together to make a difference, there is potential conflict.
Directors’ individual voices have to give way to the voice of the board. Making that happen requires lively debate and disagreement that can lead to tension. That tension can feel uncomfortable but, like most directors, I view it as a positive and necessary force for any effective board, Resolving disagreements is constructive and stimulating. It can lead to change and adaptation, promote self-awareness. strengthen relationships and heighten morale.
But when disruptive conflicts occur, they must be dealt with promptly, before they undermine the board’s effectiveness. If that doesn’t happen, they can escalate to extreme and unresolvable levels. I’ve known boards to get totally bogged down, where the conflict damages individuals and relationships, fundamentally altering board dynamics in ways that it can be difficult to recover from.
Camaraderie and friendship are often important for directors – especially volunteer directors of non-profit organizations. If the board experience is no longer enjoyable because of unresolved conflicts, directors may drift away or resign. In the worst cases, disruptive conflict can spill over outside the boardroom and negatively affect the organization’s performance.
This doesn’t mean we have to be unemotional in order to keep conflict at bay. Our emotions inevitably affect important conversations. The presence of strong emotions means that we care - that issues and relationships are close to our hearts. Acknowledging those feelings doesn’t lead to conflict – instead it tends to humanize the conversation.
“Emotions are always present where issues and relationships are at stake. The idea that we can 'leave them outside' the meeting, is false. It is the emotional dimension of conflict that is the most difficult factor for most of us to deal with.” – Grant MacDonald. Governinggood.
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Scott Baldwin is a certified corporate director (ICD.D) and co-founder of DirectorPrep.com – an online hub with hundreds of guideline questions and resources to help prepare for your next board meeting.
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