• Categories: All, Role of the board
  • Author: Graeme Nahkies
  • Published: Mar 3, 2021
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Increasing demands for greater diversity on governing boards are likely to bring more conflict to the boardroom. We are looking for the conflict of ideas.

Divergent thinking—contestability about ways of seeing and understanding the world and how our organisations might create products and services of value—is generally a good thing. That is, provided it is followed by agreement on conclusions and supportable decisions.

Unfortunately, another kind of conflict may also result from greater board diversity—the conflict of personalities.

This can emerge very quickly. The board may have been a group of relatively like-minded people from comparable backgrounds. Suddenly, new people sit around the table, challenging the established order of things. They don’t share the same assumptions as longer-serving board members and are likely to have completely different ways of seeing what their predecessors took for granted.

To established board members, it can feel as though these new members do not respect them or even agree with what they have been trying to achieve. Some (it seems) even want to ‘burn the whole house down’. Contravention of well understood and valued norms of behaviour may add further to the tension. It’s a question of ‘why won’t they get with the programme?’

It is likely the new board members don’t find it great either. They were recruited to add a different perspective but find they are expected to fit in with the established order of things. They don’t feel their views are being heard, let alone understood and accepted as valid. Casual comments concerning things that matter to them can seem insensitive, even hurtful. They might also feel they are deliberately being kept away from situations and positions of influence.  

Unsurprisingly, both groups may become frustrated with each other and express this frustration in negative ways such as in personal attacks. Aggression by new board members may also extend to staff, who are easily cast as defenders of the established order.

Once cliques form and there is bad blood between individuals, trust and civility go out the door. The board quickly becomes dysfunctional. 

If you see this kind of situation developing or feel you are being drawn into something like this yourself, you might find Melody Stanford Martin’s ‘11 Tips for Talking to Someone You Disagree With’ useful.

Martin says we should advocate passionately and articulately for causes we believe in but acknowledges that tensons can escalate quickly when we are talking with someone we disagree with. When we engage with people who see the world differently, she says the goal is not to tone ourselves down or apologise for our beliefs, but to become more effective, credible and collaborative. To help us prioritise healthier disagreement she suggests the following.

1. DO: Tell people they matter

Saying that they matter reminds both of you of the value of the relationship over and above personal beliefs and ideals. But do so without qualification!

2.  DON'T: Let frustration overcome you. Channel it.

When people say things you strongly oppose, take a moment and remember a time when you changed your mind about something. It was likely not because someone was screaming at you or shaming you. Our goals in difficult conversations should generally be to 1) protect the relationship with that person, and 2) increase both your own understanding and the chances that you also will be understood.

3. DO: Acknowledge fears under the surface

All conflict has some kind of fear at its core. It is important to recognise which fears are driving someone's belief structure. If a conversation is stuck and not going anywhere, sharing and examining fears can get things moving in a more fruitful direction.

4. DON’T: Assume the worst

We may have different visions of how to get there, but it is important to assume someone means well until we have definitive proof that they do not. Show that you see the person beneath the opinions. Show that you assume they have good intentions unless you have direct evidence to the contrary. Try to interpret what they say in a generous light, even if you plan to push back against their ideas. Show you aren't hellbent on attacking them just because they are on the ‘other’ side.

5. DO: Share your sources

Be aware of the information you use to construct and uphold your beliefs but recognise that where this comes from is also important. In the digital age, a lot of false or misleading information is floating around. Share your sources of information and be ready for the possibility that people will critique them or reject their legitimacy. If your sources are legitimate, they should have no problem holding up under scrutiny.

6. DON’T: Launch verbal grenades

Some words can be perceived as emotionally aggressive and create the opposite of collaborative, productive discourse (e.g., name calling, blanket statements (‘always’, ‘never’), ‘gotcha’ statements, personal (ad hominem) attacks, labels that people have not adopted themselves, swear words)

7. DO: Show you understand, even if you don't agree

If we don’t listen carefully and understand the nuance of what someone is saying or believing, we might say things that don’t make sense or fit the situation. This could mean our participation becomes frustrating or irrelevant. We might also miss opportunities to make good points. Show that you have listened by, for example, asking for confirmation of your interpretation of what has been said.

8. DON’T: Use sarcasm and refrain from speaking in sound bites

It can be hard to know when someone is being sarcastic or facetious, particularly in an online ‘conversation’. Try to say exactly what you mean and don't crack jokes at someone’s expense. Your long-term relationship with that person is more important than the present conversation. To be influential with them, use direct language that leaves no room for misinterpretation. Take the time to spell out a longer response or explanation instead of using sound bites that may be taken the wrong way or seen as cocky. Using humour at the wrong time can backfire.

9. DON’T: Be condescending

You will alienate someone the moment you act superior. Having more knowledge than someone else does not make you a better person. Don’t: explain things people may already know, interrupt, act as if you are the final authority, or be incredulous that someone doesn’t know something. Do: admit that you could be wrong or lack information, recognise your limits, qualify your ideas.

10. DO: Teach and be teachable

Good teachers are patient, gracious, and give people the space to discover things at their own pace. Smart people can believe untrue or misleading ideas. It doesn’t make them less smart, they may just have gaps in their understanding or unreliable sources.  Be teachable too, a ‘co-learner’. Show you are interested in another way of thinking about something. A two-way exchange of information equalises the power dynamic.

11. DO: Thank them for disagreeing

Disagreement is truly a gift. Say ‘thank you’ when someone takes the time to disagree. When they choose to disagree with us in healthy ways, they are offering a courtesy. They don’t owe us their attention or courtesy.

Martin concludes that healthy disagreement doesn’t happen magically. It requires skills, practice and courage. But it is worth it; we need to disagree well if we are to have strong communities and a strong society (and, we would add, strong, effective governing boards!). As she says finally:

We can't decide who must agree with us, when, or to what extent. But we can build bridges instead of bonfires.