Conflict Amongst Your Trustees
Managing Diversity of Backgrounds and Opinions When Diversity Causes Conflict
Charities’ boards of trustees are normally made up of a diverse group of people, with differing skill sets and backgrounds. As a result, conflict often occurs where trustees have opposing opinions. However, conflict is not always a bad thing and having a diverse board of trustees can bring many positives. Trustee diversity is being encouraged by the Charity Commission. This article will discuss the areas where conflict can arise, provide a real life case study of a fractured board of trustees and what they did to overcome it and provide some tips for your own board of trustees.
Our world is evolving, both culturally and ethnically, as we grow to understand the impact of religion and gender, background and other characteristics. As a collective of likeminded individuals looking to gain advantages for our charities, our beneficiaries and our communities, it is important to actively cultivate the differences between those sitting around the table and those charged with governance.
A diverse board can unintentionally also lead to a divisive or critical environment that has to be controlled. We can assume that each trustee has been chosen for a specific role, that their experience will often lead to different conclusions being drawn, that each is informed and intelligent and all have an understanding of your charity’s pursuits and goals. Therefore, let’s accept the tensions that naturally arise, and learn how to manage them, rather than it turning into a steadfast dysfunctional conflict that disrupts every meeting and the decision making process.
Aside from an expected level of board conflict, within the volunteer sector you also seek to engage the public interest and capitalise from the benefits of an involved community. There is a constant fear of offending the sensibilities of people who may otherwise be willing to step up to a trustee role and bring skills and passion to the cause.
Where Conflict Lies
How do you talk to each other? The communication processes in place need to be adequate for new trustees being appointed, as well as established representatives of the board.
Information provided at meetings needs to be comprehensive, complete and consistent, while serving the different needs and interests that may seem to compete with each other around the table. While each and every person may have a talent, they should also have a full appreciation of what their peers are involved with; it will harbour acceptance and respect for colleagues.
Differences of Opinion
Are differences personal or genuinely debatable for a higher purpose? While the charity’s objects are agreed and articulated amongst the trustees, is there a true shared view of mission and vision? It can be surprising how a diverse group of people can value similar targets with such different emotional receptors! However, we want our trustees to care, to be human and understand other people’s concerns and fears, acknowledge that feelings matter (certainly in this third sector where the cold executive pursuit of commercial profiteering is a world away).
Never be afraid to reiterate the charity’s message. It is important that to maintain a steady ship, the board must stay balanced and ‘on point’. Make sure those involved grasp some of the wider issues binding all charities – the importance of confidentiality, use of volunteers, fundraising principles, training they should expect and responsibilities of a trustee etc.
There can be an awkward balance of power amongst a board of trustees. Certain roles may present a natural defensiveness over others, e.g. the Chair with overriding accountability or the treasurer with an admiral sense of ownership of the figures. This extends to any member who may just be too demanding!
Undertake a review of board dynamics, to grasp the personalities of each member and how they will cope under certain stresses. Could ‘aggression’ arise and where will it come from? It is crucial to identify patterns of behaviour from individuals on the board to help you manage challenging personalities and conflicts, such as where one member speaks over the thoughts and views of others.
Conflict in the boardroom won’t necessarily be resolved in the boardroom. A series of one-to-one/ small group private sessions may be required. Confidentiality is critical, so no formal minutes should be noted, but perhaps the outcome could be reported widely as a concluding action to procedures. This demonstrates the success of a resolved conflict and can be another constructive aid.
Policies, processes, role guidelines – with so much red tape, is it a wonder we fall foul of disagreements and division? Still, a code of conduct is needed at least, or lines can be unnecessarily crossed.
What to do
- Listen – communicate – feedback. Attention to each other is a way to manage conflict before it has taken hold. At least once a year, a meeting agenda point should be to reflect on communication values and how they can be bettered.
- Soft skills management may be a requirement to those new in the role of trustee or leadership.
- When all else fails, there may need to be a conflict resolution process undertaken – a skill that should be on the list of abilities instilled in the Chair.
- As you will see from the Conflict Between the Board and the CEO article, an effective board comes from an almost essential level of conflict, but manage that, and your charity will flourish.
The ex-Chair was in the military and often assigned overseas. As a result, he was not always able to attend board meetings or be there when critical ad hoc matters arose, so had stood down for a less involved ‘back bench’ trustee role. His background gave him a strong eye for detail and dedication meant that much of his down time while not on duty was spent gaining CPD on his sector and coming up with ‘improvements’ to processes. Whilst well-meaning, this often meant proposals were over-engineered beyond the understanding of others on the board.
The new Chair was a good leader, but a less dominant figure. For older trustees, inducted and led by the example of the ex-Chair, the governance role was often seen as one of critical questioning of anything and everything at both a strategic and (more often) an operational level. It sometimes seemed that the CEO’s actions were questioned on the basis that the role of the trustee was to consistently challenge and only grudgingly support anything that was not the trustees’ idea! The ex-Chair found he didn’t like being out of the loop on CEO and Chair meetings, so seemed intent on setting up his own faction.
The new Chair had a problem. There were three new trustees with previous trustee experience who understood the role of trustee. Then there was the old guard who turned up for meetings and mimicked the actions of the ex-Chair. “Sometimes I wish I was trustee at a poorly performing establishment rather than this place. I’d have far more to get my teeth into then” commented one of them, who seemed to only see their role as helping to admonish and change what is bad rather than celebrate and protect what is good. Therefore, board meetings had two clear factions – the ‘New’ who broadly supported good strategic leadership at the Trust and the ‘Old’ who saw the ‘New’ as ‘Yes-Men’ and continued to vigorously challenge, often at an operational level.
Things finally came to a head when the ‘Old’ would not accept an operational point on which they disagreed. This could only end one way unfortunately and the ex-Chair’s resignation was forthcoming. One of the other old faction followed suit, the other two remained in place. Without their leader, their stance gradually mellowed. They are still of the Old Guard, but now take on the devil’s advocate role in a more considered manner. Their input means the meeting stops and thinks rather than running into all-out conflict. The board is still not perfect of course, but it seems to be performing much better these days.
Know your board? Why not undertake a personality audit of your trustees to test the dynamism and interaction between each other? We can help with any training you may feel you need across the members or on an individual basis, please contact Hannah Farmborough or call on 0207 429 4147 to be put in touch with a member of our Not for Profit team.
This article is from our Using Conflict as a Catalyst for Change report, a guide to help you embrace, manage and mitigate conflict within your charity.