What does good conflict and lousy conflict look like in the boardroom?

3 min read
Aug 4, 2022 3:34:55 PM

Embracing the good

Although Board conflict may be unpleasant to deal with, it does happen. With that said, though, there is a difference between good conflict and bad conflict. 

A diverse Board of directors includes different skills, assets, ideas and opinions, all to work toward the betterment of the organisation. Sometimes in the pursuit of this, disagreements will arise. 

This natural byproduct of this process should be expected and celebrated, given that it is translated and conveyed in the right way. Conflict means diversity and an acknowledgement of different ways of doing things. Being able to analyse opinions from different angles ultimately helps the board make better decisions and choices as a collective whole

What does healthy conflict look like?

The goal of boardroom decisions is to conclude with a consensus view. However, getting to that consensus is not often a straight path and can lead to tension. Lively discussion, opposing views, and strongly opinionated debates can all be expected from a board of different talents. Good governance is built on healthy tension that is based on the organisation's culture. But what does it really look like? Healthy tension looks like an open exchange of information discussing challenging topics. There should be the presence of specific energy, a momentum that drives the meeting forwards and engages the opinions of the other directors. 

What does unhealthy conflict look like?

On the other hand, unhealthy tension starts happening when discussions become disruptive conflict, bitter, and harassing arguments with no resolution. There are different types of conflicts, some that may present themselves more subtly than others.

Subtle conflict

Passive aggression, silent looks, taunts and behaviours can all be classified under subtle aggression. Aggression does not always need to be said to be perceived. This may be the most difficult conflict to catch simply because of how low-key it can be, and often, it is hard even to pinpoint the aggression. This sort of conflict can arise when a board is primarily dominated by a single board member or a small group working together. Subtle aggression can present itself in silence, refusal to engage in discussion, absenteeism, subtle sarcasm, and evading difficult debates. 

Direct conflict

Disagreements can happen upfront as well. Anger, frustration, hostility and other negative emotions can present themselves during discussions. Direct conflict can arise in the form of personal insults, raised voices, or inquisition. There can also be other, more physical behaviours such as leaving the room, slamming doors, banging on tables or resignation. 

Preventing the bad and ugly

A dynamic board seeks a diversity of ideas, talent and risk assessment; therefore, it is normal that directors would not necessarily always see eye to eye. Managed tension is crucial for good board dynamics. The goal is to have constructive dialogue, void of harsh emotion and erratic behaviours. Presented below are ideas on how to handle conflict.

Clarifying foundations

“My view is that it has to do with setting up the foundations and agreements. So as chair personally, I think that charters are a really good way to set the scene and make completely clear what expectations are. And recognising that there is good conflict and bad conflict. And that good conflict is absolutely fine, and what does that look like compared to maybe those conflicts that aren't so beneficial,” Lynda Carroll, the CEO of Align Group. Setting up foundations and clarifying roles allows for avoiding structural conflict. This should be shared with all new members of the board but also occasionally reminded of existing members. 

Standard operating procedures

Clean, clear, straightforward procedures encourage healthy discussion and debate. A board meeting should be organised with a plan – an agenda – making time for updates, reviews and discussion. If meetings are cut short, the directors find themselves with compromised discussion time and might find themselves lacking the opportunity to weigh in on their opinions.  

Having a good Chair

A skilled board chair is not just lumbar support but is critical in diffusing conflict and managing dynamics. The Chair should be well aware of their role at the head of the board, how to facilitate discussions and remain objective during all situations. They must also have a high standard of ethics and avoid conflict of interest.

Willingness to find a resolution

Directors should be reminded that they are acting objectively and in the company's best interest. Although naturally, opinions would defer, the directors need to cognitively understand that that is perfectly normal and find a way to work through the conflicts. The Chair should lead the board to reach a consensus and make a final decision that can be unanimously agreed upon. This has to work on the willingness of all directors. There should be a common agreement that conflict should not arise or that tensions should not be kept simply for the sake of it.

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