Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dealing with Conflicts on Your Board

Whether poker or association board meetings,
you need to have ground rules to play!
Last week, I came across Solange Charas’ Harvard Business Review piece titled Good Conflict Makes a Good Board.  

Since I have some scar tissue from board conflicts over the years, I was interested in her comments:
  • Anyone who has served on a board of directors can appreciate that each board has its own characteristic rhythm, social rules and level of effectiveness. What I found was that there is something powerful about the way directors speak to one another, especially when they disagree. My interviews revealed two kinds of boardroom conflict — cognitive and affective — with very different implications for board performance. Boards that recognized affective conflict and addressed it quickly were associated with high governance quality, whereas boards that were less willing to address affective conflict or ignoring it altogether were associated with low governance quality. High governance ratings were also more common for boards that had engaged directors generating high levels of cognitive conflict.
My scar tissue “research” tells me that most board members do not like to argue with other board members. And, if there is conflict on the board, staff often gets the brunt of the damage. Perhaps the situations I’m thinking of were “toxic boards” where politics won over governance.

Years ago I was on a trade mission to Europe with a group of media and board members. During a weekend break in Venice, several of us decided to have a friendly game of poker. But. None of us had enough change to be able to play. And, no one was willing to use their 1,000 lire notes (worth about $8 at the time) to play. So, there we sat. Inspiration, however, came from a radio broadcaster on the trip. “Hey,” he said, “I have a bag of hard candy each individually wrapped. I’ll be the bank. I’ll give each of you 8 pieces of candy for a 1,000 lira note.”

Now, with those ground rules established, we played poker!

Boards with good culture have established ground rules. And like our Italian poker game, the ground rules allow you to plan.

Since volunteer leaders come and go, it is often left to the paid staff to ensure those ground rules get passed along to new board members. If a newer “rogue” board member arrives, it can sometimes create issues when the culture and ground rules come from staff. Some associations solve that with a board committee or task group assigned to share the culture and rules of engagement.

Even with that “onboarding” system, you’ll find that board culture changes over time. If we as staff remain, we may find ourselves operating with the old ground rules while the board is working from the new ground rules. That can be another cause of friction.

My point here as noted in Charas’ article is to remind association executives to encourage their association boards to work from established rules, hold frequent onboarding of new directors, do a “check up” after each meeting that allows board members to evaluate the meeting and how they are doing.

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