In an ideal world, the boardroom should be a place where the brightest and best minds from across an organisation come together to exchange ideas, solve problems and ultimately drive the business forward. In reality, it is often a toxic space filled with conflict, miscommunication and ongoing feuds.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. From my experience of coaching and advising senior leaders from across industry and politics, I have developed the following tips to diffuse conflict and facilitate compromise.
- Don’t wait for conflict and arguments. Be proactive. Anticipate trouble. Head it off at the pass. Understanding the strengths and foibles of your board members will give you this foresight.
- Beware of sycophancy. Make sure everyone has a healthy disrespect for authority. Every single member should be able to say what they think without fear of reprise especially juniors and newcomers. Think how you can foster a culture in which this can occur. Otherwise it quickly becomes Emperor’s New Clothes.
- Know the blind spots of your board members. We all have them. Those known unknowns which everyone else can see, but we can’t? Use sophisticated 3600 and/or coaching to bring these into the open so that they can be talked about, acknowledged, and taken account for.
- As well as blind spots, celebrate the board’s diverse strengths. Use something like this: http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey, a free and highly respected positive psychology tool. Once your board members know where they can contribute most (and least), get them to share this with everyone else so that it’s obvious what tasks should fall to whom.
- Get everyone on the board to learn how to communicate assertively. Make their views known without unsettling and irritating everyone else. This is a well-trodden route, quick to learn and easy to do. (Check out https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/Assertiveness.htm for some ideas or offer them a single session of training.)
- In performing extensive 3600 for senior board members, it’s the single most consistently reported deficit we hear about. Don’t just listen; listen like a pro by learning active listening techniques. PS, your partner will love you for this too. Quick win with multiple benefits!
- Understand that a board is like a family. Just like a family. The same complex power politics. The same unfathomable relationship dynamics. Ask yourself what role do you play? What’s your default position?
- Get savvy about how to run your meetings. If you don’t, they will run themselves and you may not like the way they end up! One of the most refreshing and intriguing ways is described in Nancy Kline’s Time to think (timetothink.com). Some more practical advice can be found here: https://www.nytimes.com/guides/business/how-to-run-an-effective-meeting. It doesn’t really matter what you do, just do something!
- Be considerate. Be polite. If you think you might be wrong, even if a tiny little bit, say it. It will almost always help.
- If you screw up, even if only a little, grovel – publicly if possible – painful, but it works.
- Dispel procrastination. So often when there is conflict, we shy away. Kick the can. Let it wait ‘til next time. That’s a recipe for board stagnation. If you’ve got a tough message, even if it’s unpalatable, have the courage to voice it (assertively not aggressively). The board and the board’s work will increase in esteem if everyone does this. Speak truth to power, even if you are a bit scared. The secret is, everyone’s a bit scared – you alone can role model courage.
- Boards are a collection of human beings coming together allegedly for the same endeavour. So how come it doesn’t always feel that way? The biggest mistake that business leaders, CEOs, and board members make is to obscure their humanity. To be inauthentic, wooden, aloof. Let others know you as a person, a real living breathing person. Talk about your kids, your health scares, your passions and fears – it will make it so much easier to solve problems when they come along if others know you in this way.
Lastly, diversity – not important just in a PC way – but because evidence points to the fact that diverse boards function better, make smarter decisions, and ultimately achieve better outcomes. Take a good look at the demographics of your board. You know the drill, but this time it really does matter! Diverse members mean diverse views. Diverse experience. Diverse skills. We need all of that more than ever when there’s conflict or argument.
Dr Amy Iversen is an experienced Executive and Performance Coach with a unique skill set. She holds a first-class degree in Experimental Psychology from Cambridge, is a qualified medical doctor and psychiatrist with a PhD in Epidemiology and alongside her highly successful psychiatry practice, acted as the psychiatrist responsible for the staff and Members of the Houses of Parliament.
In 2016, she took the road less travelled to more fully live her values, get a better work-life balance and work as an executive and leadership coach. She now runs The Iversen Practice and along with her expert team operates using a hybrid of coaching and CBT.