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Blog by Jai Jayaraman

Everyone understands the need for wider representation, diversity and inclusion on a Board of directors of a housing association, ALMO or charity.

It informs strategic decision making with a depth of experience, allows for different perspectives to be heard and provides a sense of ownership to tenants.

However, with it comes a host of challenges as different ways of working, different ways of making decisions and a different understanding of Board accountability and responsibility can cause working tensions.

Tensions that can be used to arrive at a deeper understanding of the issues at hand, if addressed sensitively and used creatively. Or tensions that can destroy working relationships and paralyse decision making if the language used is inappropriate or the predominant mode is avoidance or attack.

While research suggests that conflict within a Board can be valuable, and often aids in growth and change within an organisation, it also suggests that it is critical that the conflict be recognised, managed, and turned into a positive force in advancing the goals of the organisation. Conflict, whether out in the open or submerged, is one of the leading reasons for Board member and executive director resignations.

When you consider the dangers of unresolved conflict between Board members – missed opportunities, organisational stagnation and a lack of confidence from investors – it is unsurprising that managing conflict and having healthy relationships on the Board is seen as an area of high importance for the good governance of organisations.

Why are difficult conversations… difficult?

At Board level, people are typically heavily invested in their perception of themselves as having professionalism and good judgement, with justification – after all, they have made to it Board level. But there’s a downside to the very qualities that raise people to this level: the self-belief, inner convictions and assertive nature can backfire.

So the hardest conversations at Board level are those where people’s sense of self feels threatened, because the emotions this gives rise to make having these conversations very challenging.

The conflict resilient board

Building conflict resilience on a Board is about developing skills and structures that allow conflict to be ‘normalised’ so that differences do not result in insurmountable tensions.  It means giving the Board a framework for managing conflict together, and a language which enables them to speak without feeling vulnerable, about their own needs and wants.

This framework and these skills will enable all Board members to meet the interpersonal aspects of the Code of Conduct, to ‘do’ the behaviours which evidence their compliance with the standards and rules for their relationship with one another, with the Executive Director and with staff.

A conflict resilient Board has members who are able to engage in constructive arguments about differences – where their individual personality is enabled and valued, and where differences can be accepted and explored without challenging or destroying the team dynamic.

Leaders need to model the best in conflict management – after all, they set the tone of the organisation. So if they are unable to embrace differences, deliver difficult messages with sensitivity, or work collaboratively, they cannot be surprised if those further down the organisation lack these skills and qualities.

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