Conflict in the boardroom

By Chris Yount

Minimize the toxicity

Healthy and well-functioning board will disagree on topics from time to time. This is not always a bad thing. You want your board to dive deep into your family business’s issues. The key to great leadership is drawing out the best ideas from the argument and minimizing the toxicity of conflict.

While all boards can experience discord, family businesses tend to find it more often. When family mixes with business, emotions from other parts of our lives follow us to the workplace and can add more drama to the conversation. So how do you tamp down the fires while still benefiting from a productive debate?

The first order for the chairman of the board is to establish the rules of the road. Clearly set boundaries that keep non-work-related conversations outside of the office. Institute an onboarding procedure with new board members that makes clear mutual respect for one’s peers is always expected. Call out deviations from these behaviors quickly, so all understand that personal attacks will not be tolerated.

More impactful than explaining how the board protocols will work is demonstrating them. The board will take on the tone you set. If you demonstrate patient listening, respect and healthy debate, they will follow in your footsteps. Lead by example.

So, what do you do when you have a board member who won’t play by the rules? I suggest you use the same techniques you would use for any underperforming employee: progressive discipline.

Sit the board member down in private to discuss how their behavior is being perceived and clearly lay out your expectations. If the toxic behavior persists, make a judgment call on whether this is a coachable person. If giving further guidance is not going to make a difference, it is time to start moving the person out to restore harmony in the boardroom.

This process can become more complicated with family members who are not so easily dismissed. How should you approach these delicate situations with someone you likely can’t fire? This is where a family council, separate from the business, can play a role. You can gather other family members to work collaboratively in finding what is best for the business. This can include having the family member step off of the board temporarily or finding ways to create greater separation from the business.

Try to focus the conversations with family members away from the disagreement you are debating and back to the thing you most agree on: You both care deeply about the success of this company. From that common ground, you can work to build a consensus on the best path forward for the team.

A company’s culture and harmony doesn’t only come from its leadership, but it can be easily derailed by division at the top. A boardroom full of conflict and ugly behavior is not a secret and will be known to the rest of the staff. Employee morale can be greatly harmed by knowing their leadership disagrees about direction and clearly doesn’t respect one another.

As discussed before, emotions will play a heavy role, and it likely won’t be pretty. For the sake of the business, you must do the hard (and sometimes not fun) work to get the results you want and prevent toxicity in the boardroom. 


Chris Yount led his third-generation family business before selling the company in 2018.



Audio Sound Duration: 
November/December 2022

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