Maintaining a healthy boardroom dynamic

Andrew Kakabadse

Discord in the boardroom can be extremely disruptive, but not all conflict and tension is bad. Managed properly, conflict and tension form an integral, and necessary, part of boardroom dynamics, encouraging debate, stimulating ideas, preventing groupthink and facilitating robust decision making.

The ‘Conflict and Tension in the Boardroom’ report, produced by Henley Business School and ICSA: The Governance Institute, was launched at ICSA’s annual conference in London in July 2017. It shows that there is a distinction between healthy tension and unhealthy conflict. There are multiple reasons why conflict and tension arise but also practical ways they can be harnessed and managed.

Tension v conflict

Tension is disagreement, which is often uncomfortable but can be resolved by healthy debate. Conflict is aggressive tension that usually escalates to extreme and unresolvable levels. As one respondent explains: ‘Conflict is undesirable. Conflict means outright hostility, but tension is good.’

Three recurring themes cause tension and conflict in the boardroom: people and personality; historical disputes; and decision making. As one chairman notes: ‘People are always the sensitive issues. People, recruitment, promotions, remuneration, those sorts of things are the big issues on the board, and everyone has a different opinion.’

Harmony v hostility

All board members bring their own expertise, responsibilities, levels of independence and objectivity. Despite these attributes, they must put aside any individual goals and agendas and ultimately work as part of a wider team that is responsible for the organisation’s long-term interests.

This can be easier said than done and a key issue for the chairman, supported by the company secretary, is to ensure that tension generated by constructive challenge does not degenerate into destructive conflict.

Ideally boards should be environments in which each individual member can respect and incorporate the views of others and, when necessary, retain their independence and challenge fundamental assumptions.

Debate is particularly important where actions are not straightforward and different perspectives and experiences need to be fully understood. Disagreements should be openly discussed as ultimately the best decisions are reached when concerns are fully aired and multiple, sometimes conflicting, perspectives are offered.

Preventing escalation

Tension can transform into conflict quickly and the tipping point is almost always the result of a situation becoming emotionally charged. Personality clashes can be particularly difficult to resolve and are more likely to escalate into situations of conflict, potentially resulting in one party either resigning or being asked to leave.

Most organisations are too uncomfortable dealing with conflict as it arises, but if conflict becomes public, it can cause extensive damage and impact the reputation of the company. It is, therefore, important to deal with potential conflicts rapidly to avoid an irreparable breakdown of trust and loss of respect.

Not all conflict takes place inside the boardroom. In fact, many conflicts are resolved outside. The role of the chair is to be clear about what is properly discussed in the boardroom, what needs to be dealt with outside it, and what needs to be dealt with outside the business completely.

Strategies for managing tension and minimising conflict include:

  • Explicitly acknowledging concerns during board meetings – concerns that are either not heard, or not listened to, often plant the seeds of future conflict
  • Face-to-face conversations
  • Depersonalising tension by reminding board members of their ‘higher purpose’
  • Sitting opposing members next to each other often prevents tension from escalating.

Andrew Kakabadse is Professor of Governance and Strategic Leadership at Henley Business School

The themes of the report will be explored at ICSA’s Board Dynamics Summit on 23 February, where Professor Kakabadse will be providing the opening address.

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