How to manage disagreement in the boardroom

The theme for the March meeting of the Next Generation NED Network, a network which hosts quarterly events for aspiring and existing non-executive directors, was ‘agreeing to disagree well’ – an issue that has relevance to almost everyone in the workplace.

The event opened with discussion about the word ‘disagree’. Some expressed concern that it could evoke an adversarial state, an ‘us and them’ mentality and could frame constructive debate as something more argumentative. Whether you call it a difference in opinion or a disagreement, it’s unlikely that groups of people on boards, committees or even within the team at work, will have the same view on every topic all of the time. In fact, raising alternative viewpoints, is fundamental to the role of any non-executive director. So, when you do find that you have a different take to others in the room, what’s the best approach to make sure that the subsequent debate is constructive and provides the best possible opportunity to find a mutually agreeable solution?

Allow everyone to share their point of view

In any group, there will probably be a formal or informal hierarchy. If those who are perceived to be more senior speak up first, there’s a chance that their opinions will shape the contributions of other group members who may feel obliged to align with their more senior colleagues. The chair could try to avoid this by inviting group members to share their views systematically, seeking out the quieter or more junior voices to speak first.

Alternatively, a show of hands on a topic at the start of the discussion gives everyone a chance to indicate where they stand and gives a top level view of the variation in opinions across the group.

Allow time to disagree

Knowing that there are differing views is only the start of the process. To benefit from diversity of views in any group, it is important to allow sufficient time for debate and discussion. While investigating differing opinions might not change the outcome of a decision, the probing of view points can help to expose weaknesses or identify issues that need to be addressed. This process helps the board to have confidence in the decisions it makes, knowing that options have been rigorously debated and considered before being settled upon.

Create a safe space

At times of strong disagreement, the value of a positive board culture cannot be over stated. It is vital that, whatever views are expressed, the board is an accepting and psychologically safe space for frank and open discussion.

The creation of this type of environment will not happen overnight; respect and positive relationships between board members will only develop if given time, so it’s important that board members are encouraged to get to know one another outside of formal meetings. While it isn’t essential for everyone to like one another, without mutual respect, healthy boardroom disagreement can cause long-term damage to board relationships.

Keep the shared goal in mind

Board members are bound to disagree on the right course of action at times. However, during these challenging conversations, bearing common ground in mind can help to keep conversations solutions focused. Directors have a duty to act in the best interests of the company. It can be helpful to bring the conversation back to this shared aim if disagreement is threatening to derail a meeting.

Identify areas for compromise

Given that the board is working together in the best interests of their organisation, it seems unlikely that any disagreement would be insurmountable. It can be useful to identify acceptable alternative solutions. These can help to draw out the specific points of opposition as well as highlighting areas of agreement. Breaking the issue down into smaller parts and building back up again can result in a new solution that works for all parties.

In some circumstances, it is possible that certain qualifiers could help to make a decision more palatable to group members, or they may simply require more information, expert input or analysis to reassure them that a decision is the correct one – ask what would be needed to change someone’s mind.

Give it time

Making decisions in a rush can lead to increased levels of disagreement as group members feel pressured to act. Failing to allow time before the meeting for effective preparation, in the meeting for constructive debate and after the meeting to gather any additional information or resources that are needed to reach a decision can all lead to friction in the board room.

Equally, if the group has reached an impasse, the chair may decide to park the issue and revisit it at a future meeting. Continued debate that runs in circles is not an effective use of precious meeting time.

The role of the company secretary in supporting boardroom debate

  • Ensure that all board members receive information in sufficient time to digest and analyse it so that they come to the meeting with a good understanding of the issue under discussion.
  • Work with the chair to ensure that the agenda allows sufficient time for debate.
  • Follow up on requests for additional information or advice.
  • Work with the chair to foster positive relations between the board, for example, by organising away days or providing networking time before or after meetings when the board can get to know one another.
  • Ensure that the objective of each agenda item is clear, is it for discussion, decision or information.

Disagreement in the boardroom should be embraced rather than avoided. It’s the embodiment and result of the cognitive diversity that we strive to achieve. If NEDs weren’t thinking independently, they wouldn’t be fulfilling their duties. Governance professionals can play a crucial role in making sure that disagreement between their board is healthy and constructive, and ultimately contributes to effective decision-making for the organisation.

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