Whenever groups of people come together, there is potential for conflict. Boards are certainly no exception. Often deliberately selected because they are different from each other (diversity is generally seen as a strength for boards), we should not be surprised when conflict arises between board directors.
Not all conflict is bad. Constructive conflict can generate innovation, critical thinking, and robust decisions. Destructive conflict, on the other hand, can lead to division, tension and poor decision making. So first, let’s distinguish between good and bad conflict.
Good conflict on boards
Conflict of ideas, where different perspectives are debated and the board is looking at different thoughts on how to achieve the best results.
There is a correlation between good conflict and good governance.
Margaret Heffernan, successful businesswoman and author, defined it well when she said, “For good ideas and true innovation, you need human interaction, conflict, argument, and debate.” (You can hear Margaret speak more on this topic in her TED Talk ‘Dare to Disagree’.)
Boards that recognise and quickly address emotional conflict, while creating strong conflict of ideas, tend to also have stronger governance. (You can read more about these ideas in the Harvard Business Review article Good Conflict Makes a Good Board.)
Interpersonal conflict, which is generally emotionally driven and linked to personal differences in style, communication, personality.
So, an absence of conflict isn’t necessarily a good thing. It may mean the board is too passive, or that it is failing to harness the diversity of experience, skills and perspectives around the board table. Sometimes the ‘difficult’ director is actually doing a good job, challenging the group to consider different perspectives and make better decisions.
To allow good conflict to occur, boards need to be able to recognise and deal with negative conflict. Left unchecked, interpersonal conflict can create a range of problems for the board:
- Productivity – the board can find it hard to get through business and manage the organisation effectively if it is bogged down in conflict.
- Innovation – Good ideas and thoughts get shut down or ignored because a particular board member is ‘out of favour’. This results in a stagnant organisation rather than one that can pave the way forward.
- Attrition – board members get sick of the conflict and leave. Often it’s not the ‘difficult’ person who leaves, which means the board loses talent and experience, while the problem remains.
- Passivity – board members stop showing up, or sit quietly and don’t contribute. This creates risk for them as individuals failing to fulfil their director duties. It also deprives the organisation of active governance.
- Wellbeing – ongoing negative conflict can be stressful and impact directors’ wellbeing. This takes a personal toll, and poses risks to the organisation if directors are being exposed to bullying, harassment or psychological injury.
Managing destructive conflict
There are practical ways that boards can address these challenges. The exact course you take will depend on your own context, but here are some general steps to consider.
Reflect on your own actions
In the book ‘The Power of Curiosity – How to Have Real Conversations That Create Collaboration, Innovation and Understanding’, Kirsten Taberner Siggins and Kathy Taberber explain that when we aren’t curious in conversations we tend to judge, tell, blame and even shame, often without even knowing it, which leads to conflict.
Spend some time reflecting on your own behaviour and practices around the board table. Think of how you have approached new ideas presented by someone you didn’t like, and identify scenarios where you could have managed yourself better. Then come up with ways to address conflict more constructively and ideas more openly, and practice those at all future board meetings.
Make the expectations clear
Articulate expectations about behaviour so there is a reference point to come back to if behaviour falls short. It can be useful to do this with a written code of conduct for board members, or by including behavioural expectations in board member position descriptions. Even if there is nothing in writing, there should be some discussion about expectations with new directors who join the board.
Individual board members will likely have very different personal styles and backgrounds. Ideas about what is “normal” behaviour in a group can vary widely. Discussing expectations upfront can head problems off at the pass by setting the expectations about what’s normal for this board.
It is particularly useful to address how disagreements should be expressed and explored – what are the ground rules for debate and constructive conflict.
Hold each other to the agreed expectations
Having set the board’s expectations, it’s important to act when behaviour falls short of what’s expected. The earlier the better. The longer it is left, the more normalised the behaviour can become, and the more heightened impact across the group (frustration, anger, resentment).
It is easiest to do this where your board culture and operating rhythm already encourages regular feedback. Some ways to do this are:
- Meeting evaluation – many boards set aside time at the end of the meeting to talk about how well the meeting ran (Did it run to time? Was the agenda too big / small? Did everyone get a fair say?). This can provide an opening to talk about how conflict emerged during the meeting.
- Regular feedback and performance review – where your board has a regular, structured process for directors to give and received feedback on their performance. This can be used to provide feedback to directors on how they manage conflict well or where they can improve. Normalising feedback means there is a way to voice concerns without making it a ‘big deal’.
In some cases, a quiet word outside the board meeting, or arranging a separate catch up to discuss any issues will be the better course of action.
Share the responsibility
While the chair has a leadership role on the board, it is important that every director takes responsibility for identifying and responding to conflict. If it’s always left to the chair, skills are not being developed across the board. Not to mention that you will be left short if the chair is involved in negative behaviours that need to be addressed.
Healthy conflict management and confidence in giving and receiving feedback are essential skills for all directors. If you aren’t confident in these areas, make them an active focus in your professional development.
Creating an environment where conflict is constructive takes ongoing attention and effort from every member of the board. Your efforts will be repaid with more productive and effective board dynamics, stronger governance and more innovation. Most importantly, it will make the board table a place you want to be.