Members of a nonprofit board of directors are wonderful people. They are often accomplished professionals, visionary leaders, and passionate supporters of the cause. Interestingly, these characteristics of excellent directors can also set the stage for tension in the boardroom. Let’s look at four tips for defusing any conflicts.
Clearly define roles and rules of conduct.
The most effective boards and meetings have one thing in common: clear expectations. Board conflict prevention starts with everyone knowing who is in charge and what is expected. I encourage boards to actually make a board member commitment “contract” that spells out the roles and responsibilities of being a director. There should be a similar description for each of the board officers, too. That way, no one is confused about who should be reporting on which areas and who is responsible for certain decisions. Make sure there are also procedures spelled out for meeting discussions and votes. If everyone is aware of the rules ahead of time, it is much easier to address conflict later.
Be hard on ideas, not people.
This is a great mantra I learned from our board governance coach, Kim Donahue. It’s all about cultivating a culture that can pick apart ideas as needed without making it personal. This is a fairly intuitive way to behave, but reminding board members about it in a fun informational session can go a long way towards boardroom decorum. Additionally, make sure that your board is building in enough social time to grow real trust and respect between members. It is much easier to express an opposing view if you believe that your fellow board directors all have the organization’s best interest in mind.
Enlist the troublemakers.
I use the word “troublemakers” loosely here to mean the people who might be more inclined to dominate a discussion or always be the first to offer their opinion. Sometimes this happens organically as other directors look to a few strong leaders to see how they feel about an issue before weighing in. If you find your meetings always revolving around the opinions of one person, elist this person to lower tension in the boardroom. Try pulling them aside and saying something like, “Brenda, everyone values your point of view so much. I wonder if we could try an experiment in this meeting. I really want some feedback from the others on this agenda item, so it would be interesting to see what would happen if you withheld your ideas for a minute to see what they come up with.” Win the more opinionated board members over to your side and you might find that the people who were previously a challenge become the peacekeepers.
While some dissent is healthy, everyone needs to come together after a vote.
Disagreement is a part of discussion, but everyone should understand that the vote on the motion should be the end of that discussion. The board will vote yes or no, and all board members should know that is the time to accept the decision of the board. This can sometimes be difficult for board members who disagree. Consensus means that even though I may disagree, I can support this decision because the majority of board members believe it is the right thing to do. It is not a bad idea to remind board members that the decision of the board should be supported by everyone in the room. Being considerate of dissenting opinions will go a long way toward resolving any differences.
Conflict in the boardroom can take time to resolve.
Don’t be discouraged if it seems like certain disagreements keep flaring up over and over. There will be times that people simply don’t like each other that much, and that’s okay. As long as you have started implementing the four steps above, you will be on the way to reining in any disputes. Don’t be afraid to periodically take a step back and ask board members what is working and what isn’t. With some careful thought, board feedback, and proactive practices, your board will be on the right track.
Boardable is an online board management portal that centralizes communication, document storage, meeting planning, and everything else that goes into running a board of directors. Founded in 2016 by nonprofit leaders and founders, Boardable has a mission to improve board engagement for nonprofits. Boardable is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.
Jeb is the founder and CEO of Boardable, a nonprofit board management software provider. He is also the founder of two nonprofits, The Speak Easy and Musical Family Tree, as well as a board member of United Way Central Indiana and ProAct. Jeb is based in Indianapolis, Indiana.