Strategies for Handling Conflict among Board Members

The worst way to manage conflict is to eliminate it. Conflict—done right—is actually a great thing for teams, including boards. In fact, if your board of directors has the right structure and the right mix of people, conflict is inevitable. It’s all in how you approach conflict.

Begin by reframing your definition of conflict and then seek to understand the root of conflict when it arises. From there, you can implement effective strategies to handle conflict among board members—and make the most of disagreements.


Reframing Conflict as Brainstorming

I like to think of conflict as a brainstorming session. It’s simply different ideas on how to handle a situation or decision. It doesn’t have to be me versus them, it doesn’t have to be personal, and it doesn’t have to be negative. Thinking of conflict as brainstorming makes it a collective and collaborative process that leads you to the best results.

When you approach conflict as brainstorming, you can see that conflict is actually a good thing. You want to hear different points of view. You assembled your board of directors because of the distinct perspective each person offers, so opposing opinions are bound to arise. Conflict is the result of putting together a diverse group of opinionated people and asking them to find a solution, but that’s exactly what your board of directors is there to do.


Understanding the Root of Conflict

What leads to conflict? In business, conflict generally stems from opposing ideas on how to deal with a particular situation or opposing views on a specific strategic or tactical direction. That’s not a problem in itself. Different viewpoints are a natural part of brainstorming. When conflict becomes damaging is when emotion gets involved.

Emotion can bring a constructive brainstorming session to an immediate halt. Ego makes things personal, and emotions cloud the discussion and block out the possibility of a solution. Suddenly the focus turns inward; participants become defensive of their opinions and aim to win arguments instead of trying to reach the best decision.


Managing Conflict Begins with Selecting Board Members

Handling conflict among your board of directors begins before you even have a board. When you select individuals to serve on your board of directors, you have to assemble the right mix of people who offer the expertise and strengths you need to support your organization. If you’re a tech company, you don’t want all technology experts on your board; you need to cover other areas—law, finance, marketing. Different areas of expertise come with different priorities, which inevitably leads to conflict.

That’s why you have to look carefully at what each individual will contribute to your board, not only with their professional credentials but with their personality as well. Consider their demeanor, including their approach to conflict, just as thoroughly as you consider their background. You choose your board members for what they can offer your organization; make sure you bring together a team of respectful, passionate, and emotionally intelligent individuals.


Equipping Your Board for Success

You want your board of directors to operate from an environment of psychological safety that fosters healthy debate. That requires everyone to shift their perspective of conflict toward something positive. Keep in mind these four key principles to help your board approach conflict as brainstorming instead of arguing:

  1. Allow all participants to speak freely. Make sure everyone feels heard and no one feels belittled.
  2. Choose your words carefully and ask everyone to do the same. Use dialogue-encouraging language and ban words that shut down a point of view.
  3. Don’t take things personally. You are not your ideas. When people reject your ideas, they aren’t rejecting you.
  4. Respect the outcome of the discussion, even if the solution doesn’t align with each individual’s wants or expectations. Don’t walk away with a defeated attitude because you feel like someone else “won.”

When your board embraces conflict as a healthy way to ideate, they’re more apt to work together to come up with the best action moving forward. A respectful, collaborative culture goes a long way for your board—and your organization.


Encouraging Healthy, Respectful Conflict

Conflict is inevitable if you’ve assembled your board of directors the right way. The key is to keep conflict productive, and in the best interest of your business, by nurturing a respectful, collaborative dynamic among your board members.


Questions to Consider

  1. Do you embrace conflict or shy away from conflict?
  2. Do you have people around you who will foster healthy, respectful conflict?
  3. Do you see the value in having a board of directors?

If you’d like to discuss how to assemble and support your board of directors, including ways to handle conflict, contact me. I’d love to help you learn more about conflict management, leadership development, and high-performing teams.