Fierce Conversations and Healthy Dissent in the Boardroom

It’s THAT board member, the one who always disagrees or points out the flaws in our thinking. Why can’t he or she just go along with the rest of us? Are they disloyal to the organization? Disagreement isn’t a sign of disloyalty. Being passionate about the organization is to be celebrated. Having fierce conversations in an atmosphere of healthy dissent is integral to a high functioning board of directors. What can we do to encourage healthy dissent and still move the organization forward?

healthy dissent and discussion on a nonprofit board

We should cultivate a board that not only has a variety of skills and talents, but a variety of opinions too. If new board members see some healthy discussion, it will encourage them to speak up too.

“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” – Edward R. Murrow

What is “healthy dissent?”

Healthy is the key word here. Strong board chairs encourage robust discussions that may involve disagreement. Ground rules for the way the board operates at every meeting can help the board chair.

Michael Wilkinson, the CEO of Leadership Strategies, the Facilitation Company, has a fine list of ground rules and two of my personal favorites are, “Be soft on people, hard on ideas” and “Take a stand.” Encouraging a robust discussion should mean challenging ideas, not people and all board members should express their opinions.

There should be no question that board members who disagree because of personal feelings about other board members or because of well-known fiduciary interests in the issue, should be asked to excuse themselves from the discussion. At the beginning of each meeting, board members should be asked if any of them have a conflict of interest with any items to be discussed.

RELATED: What is the Board Meeting Role of the Executive Director

What do we do about disagreement on an issue?

Disagreement is a part of discussion and everyone should understand that the vote on the motion should be the end of that discussion. The board will vote yes or no, and all board members should understand that is the time to accept the decision of the board. This can sometimes be difficult for board members who disagree. Consensus means that even though I may disagree, I can support this decision because the majority of board members believe it is the right thing to do. It is not a bad idea to remind board members that the decision of the board should be supported by everyone in the room. Being considerate of dissenting opinions will go a long way toward resolving any differences.

Everyone on our board likes to get along. Do we HAVE to encourage dissent?

If you have never read The Abilene Paradox by Jerry Harvey, make a point to look it up. It’s a marvelous short story that explains the problem that “group think” can create. If everyone on a board thinks alike, there will be blind spots in decision making. Already have a true consensus? Ask a few board members to play “devil’s advocate” so that the group can examine other possible perspectives.

How do we establish an atmosphere of healthy dissent?

  • Talk about it at a board meeting.
  • Establish ground rules that will encourage civility and encourage sharing opinions.
  • Make it clear that all opinions are welcome and that opinions must be expressed in a way that is “soft on people” that can also be “hard on ideas.”
  • Make it a point for board members to get to know each other. It’s easier to disagree with people that you are friendly with.

Board meetings that involve lively discussion are more interesting too! You may find that having fierce conversations in an atmosphere of healthy dissent will energize everyone on the board. Establish these ground rules, and watch your board engagement take off!

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