Tension between board members in conversation is healthy, while conflict is disruptive and best dealt with outside the boardroom.
New research, carried out in partnership between The Governance Institute and Henley Business School, shows how conflict and tension can be managed to improve board dynamics.
The Conflict and Tension in the Boardroom study highlights how tension in the form of challenge, scrutiny and debate helps facilitate effective management, whilst deep seated conflict endangers it.
We carried out 35 face-to-face interviews with chairmen, chief executives, company secretaries, CFOs and non-execs, all of whom felt that boardroom tension is inevitable, but can be harnessed positively.
Their comments included:
“A bad board member tries to force their will on people, and a very bad one does so without real knowledge of the subject they’re talking about.” (Senior Independent Director)
“If everybody is too friendly and cosy, there’s no real scepticism or challenge. Then you end up with a group that self-deludes and ultimately ends in disaster.” (Company Secretary)
The key outcomes of this study are that the best possible decisions can only be reached by understanding and embracing tensions which otherwise might drive us apart:
- Tension is disagreement, which is often uncomfortable, but it is a positive and necessary force for effective boards and can be resolved through healthy debate
- Conflict is tension that has escalated to extreme and unresolvable levels. Its disruptive and detrimental nature can change the nature of board relationships and is hard to recover from
- Tension and conflict are most likely to emerge during decision-making, and are often rooted in discussions about organisational purpose and direction.
For a board to work in the best interests of the organisation, personal differences and opinions need to be effectively managed by the chairman and the company secretary.
Good boards exhibit ‘managed tension’ in the form of robust debate, diverse membership and open dialogue. They ultimately succeed by tackling uncomfortable issues head-on.
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