In case you didn’t know, I got my Master’s degree in conflict analysis and resolution 20-odd years ago from George Mason University. I studied conflict from all angles with some of the leaders in the field, and I can tell you, from the theory side, there is absolute clarity that:
Conflict is a good thing.
We need conflict for growth, learning, development, innovation — you name it. It’s a natural part of every social system. If there were no conflict — if everyone agreed all the time about everything — nothing would ever change, and it would get quite boring. But despite all that, there is another “absolute clarity” I’ve developed in my 20 years out in the world since getting my master’s degree:
We avoid conflict like the plague.
If conflict is such a good thing, you’d think we’d actually make it a normal part of our lives inside organizations and on boards, but we don’t. We run the other way. We change the subject. Or worse, we tackle the conflict about halfway, bailing out as soon as the conversation gets too hard. This is worse, because now there is the shared illusion that we have “dealt with” the conflict, when we haven’t.
To turn all this around, you need to give your board the tools they need to resolve conflict effectively when it emerges. Here are some places to start:
1. Use a dissent agenda.
I credit my friend and colleague Jeff De Cagna with this concept. Many of us use a “consent agenda” in board meetings where you can put a bunch of non-controversial items into a document that gets voted on all at once to save time. The “dissent agenda” is the opposite — it actually calls out the specific topics where there is going to be disagreement and we’ll need adequate time for debate and healthy conflict conversations. By naming the conflict early, you actually make it easier.
2. Give board members shared language for slowing down the conversation.
My favorite tool is the ladder of inference, which is designed to unpack complex conflict conversations with the goal of developing a more deeply shared understanding of what the issues are before you try to reach agreement or solve the problem. When a board member can say, “wait a minute, I think we need to go down the ladder on this one for a minute,” and everyone knows what she means, it changes the tone of the conversation in a positive way that moves toward the conflict, rather than away from it.
3. Give behavior- and data-based feedback.
When disagreeing with each other, people do get defensive. It’s quite natural. When you feel judged by someone else, you get defensive. But instead of telling everyone to not be defensive and not take things personally, let’s learn to give feedback in ways that minimize judgment in the first place. Don’t just say “that was a horrible program,” identify the specific things you observed about the program and the specific negative impacts they had. Data and impact. It won’t necessarily get rid of all defensiveness, but it’s a start.
By the way, here’s a free handout on better conflict conversations that explains the ladder and the feedback model.
What are the stickiest conflicts you’ve seen at the board level?