A mediator in the boardroom? You might question whether a mediator is ever needed around the boardroom table – after all, aren’t boards just there to endorse what the CEO says? Of course, that is not really the case. While there have been some recent examples of boards sadly lacking in challenging the executive, or showing the requisite leadership, they are the minority rather than the norm. That is not to say things can’t improve, they can.

But what if you do have the makings of a major conflict in the boardroom – how should you deal with it?

The first thing to recognise that tension is an essential component of any board. Without it, a board will only be validating rather than challenging. But it has to be healthy tension. I once recall a head-hunter telling me he felt sorry for the company secretary of one of his clients where there were fights in the boardroom. “But Peter,” I exclaimed, “all boards disagree and have fights”. “Yes Ian,” he replied, “but not physical fights”. Clearly that is a situation to be avoided! But there is a need for a healthy tension – people should feel they can agree to disagree!

Second, all board members need to recognise that being on a board requires two principal attributes: integrity and courage. Most directors have the former, many lack the latter. So if you serve on a board and someone constantly opposes (constructively, hopefully) what you say, respect them for their courage in being open and honest in their beliefs – that of course is a component of integrity in any event. If they are doing it for their own agenda or other unethical reasons then that is another matter and leads me onto my third point.

An effective chair is an effective mediator

An effective chair is an effective mediator! He or she will construct and build a board where healthy tension can thrive but conflict is curtailed. The effective chair needs to act as a facilitator creating the right environment for people to be able to discuss, challenge and listen – the last is very important. I will come back to that. The chair needs to ensure that debate is transparent and open without letting emotion getting out of hand though some emotion can be positive – after all, boardrooms shouldn’t be too dry and dull! So the chair will need to work with board members and manage any negative conflicts between members before they escalate. This takes skilful chairing and much work behind the scenes but in a positive rather than stage-managed way. A coaching approach may help here, being clear what the mandate of the board and members is. However, this will only work where there is trust around the boardroom table – directors need to trust and respect each other, like in any high performing team. Without trust and respect there is nothing except the prospect of a failing board and organisation.

Active listening

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, board members need to ensure they (actively) listen to each other. That means really listen rather than others interrupting and preparing for what they are going to say. If this approach is not followed, then board members will soon become irritated at the antics of an interrupting director and conflict will arise. This does need the skills of an effective chair but it also needs self-awareness on behalf of all board members.

So it is easy isn’t to avoid conflict in the boardroom?! Don’t worry if you find this a bit daunting – help is at hand. You can find out more about avoiding unhealthy conflict in the boardroom and much, much more in a new book – Volcano Insurance: The Proactive Approach to Avoid, Manage and Resolve Disputes by the Dispute Resolution Partnership and published by Urbane Business.