Leave your ego at home: how to handle boardroom tension

Diversity of thought and experience in the boardroom is seen as an important ingredient of good governance, but differences can also cause misunderstanding and conflict.

For boards to do their jobs effectively, there has to be a certain amount of constructive challenge and robust interrogation of the information presented for trustees to make the best decisions for the benefit of the community the charity serves. As such, boards should not appear to be cosy, comfortable members-only clubs, but neither should there be trustee tantrums at every meeting. It is a significant, if delicate, balance to achieve.

Understanding what the causes of conflict and tension in the boardroom are and working to ameliorate them is something all trustees, but especially the chair, will need to dedicate time to. Research by Professor Kakabadse with The Chartered Governance Institute (The Institute) highlighted that boardroom conflict primarily involves clashes over the organisation’s purpose and competitive advantage.

Of course, there can be a real difference between board tension and conflict – the former is usually seen as useful, the latter dangerous. The research characterised tension as disagreement, which is often uncomfortable but can be resolved by healthy debate. Tension can be identified as:
• robust debate;
• open exchange of information;
• discomfort;
• discussion of difficult issues;
• questioning;
• energy and momentum;
• diverse perspectives;
• engagement

Conflict, on the other hand, is regarded as aggressive tension that usually escalates to extreme and unresolvable levels. When conflicts do occur they can fundamentally alter the dynamics of the board in ways from which it can prove difficult to recover. Examples of conflict include:
• passive aggression;
• emotional responses, including anger, frustration, hostility or disapproval;
• repeating a point;
• overtly interrogative questioning;
• physical behaviours such as leaving the room, slamming doors and even resigning
Strategies for managing tension and minimising conflict in the boardroom include:
• not being an ostrich – acknowledge the tension and the cause of it;
• being courageous and non-judgemental – talking through issues face to face to at least understand the underlying issue, even if you agree not to agree;
• leaving egos at home – focus on the charitable purposes and engage in decision making that helps achieve those aims;
• change the physical to alter the behavioural – disrupt unhelpful behaviours by implementing seating plans. For example, it is harder to adopt an ‘aggressive’ stance when you are sitting next to the person you disagree with compared to sitting opposite them;
• socialising – providing trustees with the opportunity to get to know each other outside of the formal work of board meetings;
• formalising decision making – taking proposals to a vote will make it clear what has been decided, also codes of conduct, boardroom etiquette policies and statements relating to behaviours, values and culture will reinforce the way trustees should behave; and
• self-awareness – reflecting on what it is that is causing your behaviours and reactions. Is it a personality clash or a fundamental difference in the way the charity is led?

Depending on the cause of the tension or conflict in question, the solution may be found inside or outside of the boardroom. In most cases it is likely that the chair will be required to help resolve the matter, unless the cause for the tension and conflict is the chair!

A good board is one with managed tension, while a dysfunctional board allows unresolved tension to fester and escalate into conflict situations. The chair, and other trustees, therefore need to be attuned to both what is being said and not said, noting the non-verbal behaviours of all in the room and then acting on them promptly. Boards are social systems, and to be effective they require each trustee to contribute their unique talents and respect the talents of others.

Louise Thomson is head of policy (NFP) at the Chartered Governance Institute

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