10 Tips to Avoid Boardroom Conflict

by Dr Karl Mackie CBE

A boardroom is full of individuals with the best intentions for an organization – but it can also be a hotbed for conflict when disagreements arise.

Making sure tensions do not spill over when conflicts arise in your organisation is essential – the alternative is getting bogged down and hampering progress, or even threatening the survival of the company.

Here are my 10 top tips for avoiding boardroom conflict.

1. Don’t take it personally.

A disagreement may be about the situation, idiosyncratic language used or a difference in vision – so don’t make it about you. Knowing this can make it a lot easier to resolve difficulties. It is reported that Bill Perez, a former CEO of Nike, had a different management style to the organisation’s culture. He found it hard to deal with the feedback he received from the Board, believing he should have been credited for his successes. He left within a year of starting.

2. ‘Who was right’ does not matter.

When you get beyond a certain point in a fight, the dynamic or situation will have moved on. What then matters is ending the fight for the well-being of the organisation and for the future. Otherwise others in management, or worse the shareholders, will have to intervene to avoid a damaging meltdown.

3. Conflict can have a very high gravitational pull.

It disproportionately sucks up more time, energy and resource than other priorities.

A study conducted by Lloyd’s in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed that “board members are increasingly concerned about the increasing number of corporate litigation cases facing the boards.”

On average, boards spend 13% of their time discussing litigation issues. Recognising this can increase a determination by directors to resolve the matter rather than prolong it.

4. Unravel an argument

Sort out the difference between what happened and how you or others feel about it. Then consider what is actually at stake or what the outcome needs to be, or what feeling needs to be restored.

Although not a board dispute, in the case of the management of Barclays, whilst Bob Diamond says he felt “sickened” by the Libor scandal it still happened on ‘his watch’ and (at least in the first few days) he failed to realise that this was something from which he could not recover even though his Chairman had already tried to ‘take the bullet’.

5. Keep clear and strong, but fair to all contributions – and mind your language

A few misplaced words can irritate or reignite a fire. By keeping things as simple and focused as is possible, it is easier to rebuild consensus. “If information is not presented crisply, directors can’t stay focused and decision making suffers”, Stuart R Levine, Director, Gentiva Health Services

6. Start from the common ground.

It is a lot easier to get agreement on the points you are closest on and then work towards finding solutions on what you don’t agree on, than to just focus on the differences from the outset.

‘Big picture’ objectives usually help.

7. Think ahead 

It’s always easy to be wise after the event. But, when the worst happens it is a lot easier to find a way out of an impasse if you have thought about how to resolve differences in advance of the event.

“It is an important governance issue for the board to ask ‘Do we have adequate mechanisms to resolve disputes that may arise?’”, former Supreme Court Judge of South Africa, Mervyn King, chair of the King Committee on Corporate Governance

8. Know your own feelings

Don’t turn into a pressure cooker.

If you feel stressed in your dealings with other board members, try to understand why (frustration? anger? fear? personal chemistry?).

It can help you manage the situation a lot better and to make choices that are not just an emotional reflex reaction.

9. If possible, take the lead

That doesn’t mean storm in without listening.

On the contrary it means start the dialogue and keep listening, model good problem-solving behaviour. This can be key to identifying where the building blocks are that may help you begin to construct an agreement.

10. You don’t have to go it alone!

There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it – and there is more out there than you might think – from coaching to professional mediation.

And in that sense conflict can be seen as a trigger for helping Boards find ‘added value’ and conflict intervention a tool of good governance.

“Conflict resolution professionals are uniquely qualified to serve corporate boards in the constructive management of boardroom conflict and use the energy of conflict to improve uplift, and advance the organisation as it seeks to reach its maximum potential” Professor Richard Ruben, Columbia Law School.

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