Moving From Dissonance to Harmony: Managing Conflict on the Board

Oct. 14, 2016

DRG staff

Power struggles, miscommunication, and differences of opinion are bound to show up on any nonprofit board and can intensify when an organization is undergoing an executive transition. When conflict arises, one’s first instinct might be to avoid it, but conflict can actually present an opportunity for organizational growth if it is addressed wisely. It may also point to systems that are broken and in need of fixing.

Consider the following story:

Emily founded a small nonprofit to address toxic waste in poor communities in her region 25 years ago. Over the years, the nonprofit became a prestigious and well-funded organization. As executive director, Emily hand-picked each board chair and, over time, the power on the board became unequally distributed, leaving some board members frustrated in their efforts to move the organization forward.

Board meetings became short and perfunctory; there was little room for new ideas or inquiries about board practices. Although the bylaws called for term limits, they were not enforced. Annual evaluations of the executive director also did not take place. In one meeting, a member of the board suggested that the nonprofit would be stronger with a less enmeshed executive and some board members agreed.

When Emily announced her retirement, the board became divided. Some members felt that Emily was being unfairly pushed out of the organization while others viewed her retirement as an opportunity for change. The board recognized that a unified front was necessary for a successful transition, but its members did not know to how to address the conflict they were having internally and feared that it would jeopardize the organization’s success in the future.

How would you leverage disagreements surrounding the executive transition if you were on this board? Behavior that is accusatory, combative, passive-aggressive, or reticent can lead to an unhealthy board culture. On the other hand, a constructive and dynamic board culture allows your board members and the organization’s leader to discuss issues that are affecting the organization without fear of reproach. It also inspires members to work together to come up with reasonable solutions.

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