Fragmented boards: Using disagreement as a catalyst for great conversations
Directors should be compelled to offer constructive criticism that leads to healthy debate, forming decisions that are in line with the company's overall vision and ethics. By being open and considered, directors reach an understanding of how to make better decisions. But how do we engage in such healthy debate rather than fostering resentment, withdrawal or capitulation?
Aspiring and current directors must build open, transparent communication as a pathway to being effective in their role. Open discussion of differences of opinion is essential if boards are to make informed and ethical decisions. However, disagreement is often avoided or met with anxiety if directors worry about discord or blurring the lines between personal opinions and professional ethics. While open dialogue can certainly bring potential risks, it also presents an opportunity for thoughtful deliberation that leads to better problem solving and decision making.
In this blog post, we will explore how boards can use disagreements as a catalyst for great conversations that lead to informed outcomes - avoiding the mistakes made by companies like Enron, Centro, Kodak, Exxon, etc., where lack of deep dialogue and true communication was a key factor in their failure. Disagreement if handled correctly will lead to more creative outcomes. Placing yourself in another’s shoes allows you to think differently.
Here are some methods for using disagreement as a catalyst for great conversations:
- Listen to understand: The first step in using disagreement as a catalyst for conversation is to listen to the other person’s perspective with the intention of understanding them, before pushing back and presenting your opinion.
- Assume good intentions: Don’t assume bad intentions from the other person - they may just have different beliefs or opinions that they are passionate about sharing. Your job is to understand their perspective.
- Identify common ground: Seek to understand and identify common ground and where possible a solution that works in the best interests of the organisation you both serve.
- Be empathetic: Resist the temptation to engage in an argument and focus instead on how to understand the perspective and journey they have taken to develop their point of view - in other words, place yourself in their shoes.
Encouraging deep dialogue
Boardroom conversations on how best to govern are incredibly insightful and powerful as moments of collaboration, with directors sharing thoughtful insights to drive better decision-
Encourage deep dialogue amongst directors by fostering an environment of trust and mutual respect, where the communication is open and transparent and free of personal judgement. Every member is owed an opportunity to present their view on the matter up for discussion while listening actively and carefully to others’ ideas. Further, care should be taken that every voice is heard regardless of dynamics within the group where creating space for dissenters ensures robust risk management.
Dealing with difficult personalities
To work around difficult personalities on the board, clear boundaries should be set for communication styles, including defined protocols for decision-making. A code of conduct should also be established to help ensure respect among directors regardless of their differences and this should be adhered to. Remember we sometimes forget this and should allow other directors to keep us honest. You each have an obligation to call out difficult behaviour when it gets in the road of making decisions and impinges upon the successful working of the group.
All parties should strive to cultivate empathy and compassion so that disagreements can be addressed in a respectful way with everyone's individual needs in mind. By taking these measures, boards can lay the foundation for open, transparent dialogue and maintain a higher level of accountability going forward.
Best practices for managing conflicts in a positive way
To foster positive and productive outcomes, it is important for directors to be aware of their own triggers and communication style. This is about our posture when we enter the room and engage in debate. We can exercise the choice to choose how we feel.
In understanding individual areas of expertise and perspectives, directors can reduce the potential for interpersonal disputes. Additionally, values-based leadership should be encouraged and modelled to enable a proactive resolution model that preserves positive relationships whilst mitigating the risk of long-term turf battles. Furthermore, open, transparent communication governed by clear guidelines and meaningful accountability measures can help avoid disruptive fallout from disagreements on issues such as power sharing, roles and responsibilities.
The importance of personal courage
The corporate world has seen numerous board scandals due to lack of proper timely and open information sharing, communication, a moral compass and personal courage. As a board, directors need to be both open and transparent in conversations, but such values must come from within. It is essential to understand the power of personal courage when making decisions. This means being able to go against popular opinion or even groupthink, make unpopular decisions or question and challenge accepted ideologies for the greater success and good of the company or organisation.
Good governance relies on open and transparent communication, strong conflict management methods and having the courage to make bold decisions. Failures such as those Centro, Enron, and many others provide a stark reminder to boards of the need for rigorous governance standards and the importance of having conversations about risk management and financial sustainability.
Directors need to be open to critical dialogue, learn how to address difficult personalities in a supportive way, adjust their behaviours when conflicts arise, and act with personal courage when making decisions that can impact an organisation's reputation and future successes or failures.
By utilising these tips and strategies as guidelines, directors can ensure they adequately meet their fiduciary duty of care when managing their respective organisations.
The opportunity here is for boards to engage in understanding deeply their own and each other’s perspectives, preferences and beliefs. Conducting a group behavioural assessment not only allows each director to understand the behavioural preferences of those opposite them at the table, but also allows them to identify overall gaps in thinking. First comes the awareness, then comes the needed change. If you are not aware, how can you decide how to go forward?
In the many board assessments Bravo has conducted, we have noticed great improvements in the way individuals work together: it is as if the cogs have been oiled and work more smoothly not only tolerating but appreciating differences of perspective.
If you think a behavioural assessment could support the operations of your board, contact Bravo today and one of our consultants can explain how we work with you to get the results you need.
For more ideas on managing board dynamics see our blog post 5 tips for managing your board.