Better boards through recruitment, conflict management

publication date: Jul 3, 2013
author/source: Janet Gadeski

HR consultant Solange Charas has served on for-profit boards and advised management teams that engaged with boards. For a long time, she was puzzled about what makes a board effective. As part of her Ph.D. research, she interviewed directors at 22 small- to medium-sized publicly traded companies about their board practices and dynamics. Half the companies had received above-average rankings for governance quality from an international ratings organization, while the other half had received below-average rankings.

The differences came down to two issues: how they handled conflict and how broadly they searched when they needed to fill vacancies. Her findings, summarized in her posting on the HBR blog, seem to me to be equally true of nonprofit boards and of teams in all types of workplaces.

Words have power

Your mother was right: in a disagreement, keep the focus on the issue, not the person. Charas found that there were two kinds of conflict, each with a very different effect on board performance.

  • Cognitive conflict was task-oriented. The conversation was about how to do things to get the best results. People said things like “I don't think your idea will work.” “Maybe we need to look at it a different way.” “Have you thought of this?” Directors offered and encouraged others to offer creative, positive solutions and different points of view.
  • Affective conflict, by contrast, was emotionally oriented. It highlighted personal differences or shortcomings. In affective conflict, people used language like “I don’t think you have good ideas and you don’t understand the issue.” You can imagine the results – the more volatile people attacked in return, while the quieter ones shut down. Charas concluded that this kind of conflict destroyed any chance of creating value.

The highest-performing boards had two conflict-related traits: a fairly high level of conflict and the ability to keep that conflict at the cognitive level. She discovered an unexpected benefit too – boards with higher levels of cognitive conflict and the ability to turn affective conflict towards a cognitive approach had nearly half the attrition of boards where affective conflict was the norm (13% vs. 24%).

Don’t recruit your friends

Charas also found that board governance quality correlated with whether or not directors had known one another fairly well before joining the board. Her study showed that close to 70% of high-governance-board directors were “strangers” when they joined their board, while only 25% of directors recruited to low-governance boards were unknown.

When directors had congenial relationships before their board involvement, she hypothesized, they wanted to keep the friendship intact. They supported their buddies in affective conflicts. When they didn’t see each other outside the boardroom, there was more attention to keeping their work environment (the board room) productive. That made them more willing to call a halt to affective conflict, and approach competing ideas in a more cognitive style for the sake of getting things done well in the brief time they were together.

Tips for better teams

Charas’ four tips for creating good boards apply equally to the task of building good teams. Here they are in her own words.

  • Recruit the best people you can by casting a wide net beyond your personal network.
  • Screen directors [and staff applicants] not just for professional capital, but also for behavioral characteristics and “fit” to your boardroom [or workplace] culture.
  • Address affective conflict as soon as it arises – easier done if you don’t fear the consequence of damaging a prior relationship.
  • Don't be afraid of cognitive conflict – embrace it as a source of innovation and creativity in problem solving.

Read Solange Charas’ full post here

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