Ten Top Tips: Avoiding a boardroom brawl

Making sure tensions do not spill over when conflicts arise in your organisation is essential - the alternative is getting bogged down and hampering progress.

by Karl Mackie
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

Don’t take it personally. A disagreement may be about the situation, idiosyncratic language used or a difference in vision – so don’t make it about you. Knowing this can make it a lot easier to resolve difficulties. It is rumoured that Bill Perez, a former CEO of Nike, had a management style incompatible with the organisation’s culture. He found it hard to deal with the feedback he received from the board, believing he should have been credited for his successes. He left within a year of starting.

‘Who was right’ does not matter when you get beyond a certain point in a fight as the dynamic will have moved on. What then matters is ending the fight for the wellbeing of the organisation and for the future. Otherwise others in management, or worse the shareholders, will have to intervene to avoid a damaging meltdown. Conflict can have a very high gravitational pull – it can disproportionately suck up more time and resource than other priorities. A study conducted by Lloyd’s in conjunction with the Economist Intelligence Unit revealed ‘board members are increasingly concerned about the increasing number of corporate litigation cases facing the boards.’ On average boards spend 13% of their time discussing litigation issues. Recognising this can increase a determination by directors to resolve the matter rather than prolong it. 

To unravel an argument, sort out the difference between what happened and how you or others feel about it. Then consider what is actually at stake or what the outcome needs to be. Although not a board dispute, in the case of the management of Barclays, whilst Bob Diamond said he felt ‘physically sick’ on finding out about the Libor scandal, it still happened on ‘his watch’ and (at least in the first few days) he failed to realise that this was something from which he could not recover even though his Chairman had already tried to take the bullet.  Keep clear and strong – and mind your language. A few misplaced words can reignite a fire but by keeping things a simple and focused as is possible it is easier to rebuild consensus. 

Start from the middle ground. It is a lot easier to get agreement on the points you are closest on and then work towards finding solutions on what you don’t agree on, than to just focus on the differences from the outset.   It’s always easy to be wise after the event but when the worst happens it is a lot easier to find a way out of an impasse if you have thought about how to resolve differences in advance of the event. 

Know your feelings and don’t turn into a pressure cooker. If you feel stressed in your dealings with other board members try to understand why (frustration? anger? fear? etc.). It can help you manage the situation a lot better and to make choices that are not just an emotional reflex. 

If possible, take the lead. That doesn’t mean storm in without listening. On the contrary it means start the dialogue and keep listening, this can be key to knowing where the building blocks are that may help you construct an agreement.

You don’t have to go it alone! There’s no shame in asking for help when you need it – and there is more out there than you might think – from coaching to process design to neutral intervention. And in that sense conflict can be an ‘added value’ tool. 

Dr Karl Mackie is chief executive of CEDR (Centre for Effective Dispute Resolution).

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