Diplomacy in the Boardroom, and Beyond – Part 1

‘Conflicts’ in the boardroom are normal. That doesn’t mean we intend to be disputatious or belligerent though. Diplomacy is not reserved for national governments.

Conflicts of interest, conflicting opinions, and interpersonal conflicts are some of the more frequently discussed conflict issues that Boards need to manage. The partial typology illustrated below suggests a few others, with value conflicts being of particular interest in this post.

Managing conflict

Much has been written about conflict of interest over the years, but somewhat less guidance is available on conflicting values, such as the eight kinds listed in the header chart above. Directors have a duty to disclose and manage conflicts of interest, but to be effective decision-makers, they also need to be skillful in managing situations in which values conflict.

When we find ourselves conflicted between two responses or courses of action in our personal lives we can use a ‘plus or minus’ formula to weigh up whether the benefit/cost/risk tradeoff (ratio) of one option outweighs the other. This includes considering whether one option is more helpful or harmful to others (perhaps applying our interpretation of the Golden Rule). Such deliberations and subsequent actions are always influenced by our internalized underlying values and beliefs. It’s not what we say, but what we do that best expresses this (think mottos like ‘Deeds not Words’).

Values intrinsically underpin motivation, and motivation underpins results. Whether we are intrinsically or extrinsically motivated makes a huge difference to the quality of our engagement, the outcomes we achieve, and the relationships we forge along the way.

What we consider important in one situation may not be as important in other circumstances. As the more generic Types of Conflict chart below suggests, we all demonstrate the capacity to change our position on issues according to variables like mood, tiredness, or even the tone of a debate, not only a persuasive argument.

Value conflicts

When our personal values conflict with those of the organisation we work for, or are a member of, we have various options for how we ask decision-makers to take remedial action. Where we have sufficient agency to effect a favourable change, we can trust that the problem has been addressed. When our efforts are not able to achieve change within the organisation though, we have the choice between acceptance, appeal, compromise, or rejection (up to and including the severance of the relationship).

Value conflicts within a nonprofit organisation are rarely ‘black and white’ or ‘right versus wrong’ disputes. More often than not, they involve different emphases or priorities in the beliefs and dispositions of participants. The intentions we bring to engagement with and response to situations and circumstances are often unconscious, because they involve deeply held values. Every decision to take action, or to take none, consists of a value judgment.

To the extent that our decision-making is a shared undertaking, it is important to surface and align our values as much as possible. We do this in the interests of serving our shared purpose and being effective in our roles. This extract from The Art of Dialogue by William (Bill) Isaacs highlights four key qualities of effective dialogue for our consideration:

Conflict transformation

A method called conflict transformation seeks to characterise social conflict as “a natural phenomenon that creates potential for constructive growth“. The header chart above suggests that we can transform value conflicts using eight steps or diplomacy measures. These steps may be seen as an expression of Stephen Covey’s recommendation – “first seek to understand, then to be understood“.

What about a situation where we have agreed on our organisational values, but in a particular circumstance we weigh them differently? Sometimes we combine and weight values differently, based on our experience (or lack thereof). One value (like respect) may seem to be agreed upon, but if a colleague weights it by association with another value (say community), and we weight it by association with a different value (say autonomy), we can become stuck in conflict. Have we all agreed on a circuit-breaker approach that can resolve such differences in viewpoint?

How we respond in such situations may involve a structured approach, carefully defined in a decision-making or dispute-resolution framework devised by our Governance Committee. Alternatively, it may bypass rational and considerate approaches by failing to separate the person from the problem, the past from the future, and positions from interests.

Resolution, or conflict transformation, is not always a ‘Win:Lose’ matter. As Kenneth Cloke and Joan Golsmith note in their book Resolving Conflicts at Work,

“Resolutions become possible when you stop debating over positions (what you want) and start dialoguing over interests (why you want it). Interests can usually be satisfied in multiple ways, whereas positions are almost always opposed, and represent only a small range of possible outcomes

The two charts which follow describe different types and modes of dialogue we use in various settings, including the boardroom. Conflicts feature in a number of the initial scenarios outlined in Douglas Walton’s typology of dialogue in the first of these. Familiarising ourselves with the purposes and likely effects of each can help us to choose our approach more constructively. Rather than reacting emotionally (in the eristic mode) to disagreement, we can take more deliberate action to promote consensus and unity (including ways we can agree to disagree).

Value weighting

A conflict I sometimes encounter in health and welfare-oriented organisations involves their commitment to evidence-based decision-making while also seeking to respect member, patient, or client perspectives. Here, value is attached to concepts like ‘person-centred care’, ‘nothing for us without us’, and ‘honouring lived experience’.

These concepts act as guiding principles or as decision criteria when deliberating on policy or procedural issues. So the question of how much those perspectives should influence any decision will have to be weighed against the strength of the evidence and the expected value for the member, patient, or client. Judgments will be involved rather than simple ‘black-and-white’ or ‘Yes/No’ options.

Having evidence standards that sit alongside (or within) our decision-making framework is likely to be helpful when a values conflict like this is identified. An approach to the integration of these two values is suggested in the following chart, outlining an approach that could be adapted for use in your nonprofit.

To be continued …

Part 2 in this series on conflict transformation will reflect on the escalation and de-escalation of conflict.

See also:

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