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Surfacing, Confronting and Resolving Board Conflict
By Megan Cohen, Vice President, Healthcare + Scientific Industry Practice, SmithBucklin

Unmanaged conflict can hijack a board agenda and derail an entire board meeting. It can create major rifts among board members, erode trust and destroy a board’s ability to function and make sound, strategic decisions. As a result, sustained conflict can disrupt an entire organization, leading to a decrease in member value.

Successful boards are able to surface, confront and resolve conflict. They do not hide from it, or pass it off as inevitable. They address it and work to resolve it. This, of course, is not easy. The process requires a deliberate approach.

Define and Instill Board Culture

Conflict can be best addressed if the culture of the board sets the right tone. Every board should establish a culture statement that encompasses 10 to 12 points. There are two points in particular that should always be included. The first emphasizes openness, transparency and accountability. The board should be committed to creating and nurturing an atmosphere that embraces these traits. The second point is conflict resolution. The board needs to be committed to swift, direct and honest approaches to resolving conflict, with one overriding objective: work it out and move on.

Once a board creates a culture statement, it must be systematically applied to all of the board’s activities and responsibilities. Here are some suggestions:
  • Share the culture statement with potential board candidates so they understand what will be expected of them.
  • Discuss the document during board member orientation. Ask the president to reinforce that board members hold each other accountable in regard to the culture statement.
  • Reinforce it by asking board members to sign it each year. Some boards even recite it before each meeting to set the tone.
  • Conduct board evaluations. This effort allows board members to grade themselves on compliance with the culture statement. Discuss the results at the next face-to-face meeting and allow time to reflect on what can be done to resolve conflict more effectively going forward.
  • Immediately address instances in which board members are not upholding the culture statement. Discuss all issues in an honest and open manner. This approach will result in a better understanding of the real or perceived behavior and set clear expectations moving forward. If a board member has received repeated warnings about stepping outside the agreed-upon culture statement and has not changed his or her behavior, it could be necessary to respectfully ask that person to resign.
Build Relationships

Because strong, trusting relationships allow conflict to often be resolved quickly and respectfully, successful boards carve out time to develop them among their members. There are many methods to encourage relationship building, but never underestimate the importance of scheduling social time for board members to get to know each other. Formalized time during board orientation and general meetings is also helpful. Icebreaker activities and sharing written profiles can help start the relationship-building process, and these exercises will also help set a positive tone at the start of each meeting.

Once the board members establish relationships, do not stop there. When possible, provide opportunities for members to reconnect. Eventually, trust will develop, which often leads to members giving each other the benefit of the doubt during intense situations and working harder to listen to and understand opposing positions.

Resolve Conflict Without Hesitation

When conflict does arise, address it immediately. Do not allow rifts in the board to grow and fester.
  • Be deliberate – seek out and uncover conflict. Every board president should schedule check-in calls with fellow board members. This outreach is an excellent opportunity to ask probing questions about the functionality and harmony of the board.
  • When a contentious issue arises in the boardroom, appoint a small work group or task force to debate the issue offline and report back to the board with recommendations. Do not shy aware from selecting members with strong opinions from both sides of the issue. If the work group can come to consensus on recommendations, the board will know that all sides of the issue were openly debated and it will likely accept the recommendations.
  • The president or executive committee should always manage issues of conflict among board members. It is never appropriate to break this rule.
  • When conflict resolution is needed, remember that each scenario will require a unique resolution. Some conflicts can be resolved through unscripted, open dialogue. However, some boards could engage a facilitator to lead a conflict-resolution session if the board president is not comfortable in the role of facilitator.
It is possible for a board to effectively surface, confront and resolve conflict. Some board members may scoff at this statement, but it is possible. However, it does require focused effort. In the long run, such a commitment will lead to board members who are able to express their opinions and know they are being heard. As a result, the board will function better as a unit and make better decisions.

  As vice president, Healthcare + Scientific Industry Practice at SmithBucklin, Megan Cohen serves as the executive director of the American Association for Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation, and provides oversight for other SmithBucklin association executives. Cohen has more than 25 years of association management and government relations experience.

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Board Forward is published 10 times a year by SmithBucklin, the association management and services company more organizations turn to than any other. SmithBucklin has served volunteer board members for 70 years.


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