How Productive Conflict Improves Decision Quality

How Productive Conflict Improves Decision Quality

By Susan Farrell Stock, Executive Director, AMC Consulting Services

Conflict is part of communication and deliberation in many settings. For not-for-profit boards, conflict can present unique challenges, including:

  • risk to sustainability of an organization
  • ability to mitigate business risks
  • alignment to the strategy, mission, and vision of an organization
  • representative nature of governance (Can boards represent the interests of their members/constituents?)
  • how the board agrees to surface controversial topics and deliberate in a productive manner.

Boards’ interpersonal communication—including having a large board, diverse representation, infrequent face-to-face meetings, and individual versus collective interests of the organization—prompts opportunities for conflict. 

For one large global healthcare specialty organization, the need to develop productive tools for addressing conflict became critical to the future growth and sustainability of the organization. The board committed to participating in a development workshop that focused on scenario-based exploration of controversial topics. Creating scenarios for discussions based on hypothetical situations laid the groundwork for conversation and, yes, conflict.


The board prepared for these discussions by participating in individual interviews. The interviews allowed for candid discussion on topics that needed resolution at the board table. Scenarios were developed based on the predominant themes, including:

Board Recruitment—Engaging Future Leaders 

Although the board recognized the need to diversify and strengthen representation of emerging leaders on the board, it struggled to identify, cultivate, and mentor incoming volunteer leaders in an optimal way. Emerging leaders were underrepresented on the board, as well as in committee roles where visibility and leadership are cultivated prior to consideration for the board. Additionally, non-academic physicians represented the largest segment of the membership target, yet this demographic was not represented on the board. 

Boards can be divided on how to attract and cultivate future leaders who truly represent their constituency. Understandably, many board leaders seek to work with colleagues who have similar experiences and professional practice settings. How should they move the needle? 

The board, working in concert with the CEO and leadership team, sought new ways to attract a more representative governance profile on the board. These discussions helped create a revised approach to nominations and the selection processes, clearing some of the hurdles about bias, prerequisite involvement, and leadership roles in order to create a more diverse (and possibly disruptive—in a good way) board of directors. 

Competitive Advantage/Risk—Scenario Planning

The larger specialty organization is aggressively targeting subspecialists with content in an effort to attract and retain members and is actively targeting new audiences through special programming and incentives. The board is very upset about this maneuver but is split in recommended approaches: Half of the board wishes to launch an overt counterattack, desiring to create new programs for younger professionals. The other half of the board, most of whom hold dual membership in both organizations, want to approach this diplomatically, in hopes of creating a collaborative partnership. All agree that it would not be easy.  

The board agreed that a proactive strategy to mitigate future risks was needed. But it was clearly divided on how best to approach this threat. Having conversations that allowed them to share their concerns, ideas, and potential next steps helped provide staff with direction. Approaching this discussion with an openness to active dissent, inviting all ideas and risk concerns, was key. Weighing risks against potential growth goals enabled the board to refocus on its core strength and mission as an organization. This enabled the board to coalesce around risks and opportunities in ways that would help it consider potential actions. Further, an exploration of potential outcomes and scenarios enabled the board to weigh potential options in a productive and open fashion. 

Member Value and Growth Proposition—A Global Strategy

The organization has defined global relevance and expansion as a strategic priority. With increased focus in this area—creating value to members and customers through programs, products, and resources—the organization believes that this global approach will invite new levels of partnership from institutions, corporate partners, and allied organizations. This is a significant initiative that will be highly visible, particularly among North American audiences, including members and competitors. The board explored this topic generatively, considering what additional data or research might be needed to better understand the global marketplace gaps. How will these gaps present opportunities for growth?

Without welcoming healthy conflict, these growth opportunities may not have been possible for the organization. While it’s a human desire to avoid conflict, it can serve as a springboard to help improve the sustainability of an organization. These examples intend to illustrate ways in which boards have explored potentially divisive topics in order to create options that lead to resolution and growth for the organization.

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