For any group tasked with making a decision, conflict can be a double-edged sword. Thorough debate can ensure all options and opinions are considered, but political bickering can bring decision making to a standstill. Keeping conflict positive and productive is no easy task.
Within association boards, new research shows that one effective way to manage conflict is to avoid it at the board level, channeling it instead toward the task force or committee level.
"When you manage conflict in committee or task force, you can really bring it out and take the time to really attack the issue and not so much worry about the deliverer," says Mark Engle, D.M., FASAE, principal at Association Management Center. "When it comes to the board level, you don't have that much time. You have a lot more stress and agenda items that distract you from your focus, and so at the board level it is really more about the personality of the deliverer. That makes a much bigger impact than sometimes the message."
As he worked toward a doctor of management degree at Case Western Reserve University, Engle researched decision-making practices in nonprofits. After surveying more than 300 association executives and board members and studying in depth seven associations in the midst of making major strategic decisions, Engle says careful conflict management is vital to nonprofit boards, which are driven by consensus more so than their for-profit counterparts.
"Corporations have more of a hierarchical system, whereas we have separate-but-equals. Even your most seasoned veteran has the same standing, theoretically, on the board that the newcomer board member does. The same vote, the same weight," he says.
Of course, designating task forces as the place for conflict means the group's purpose, scope, and methods must be clearly defined.
"The more direction that you give to that task force the more successful they are," Engle says. He adds, though, that "there's a looping, a cycling process. We're dealing with strategic issues. They're not going to be introduced at this board meeting and resolved at the next quarterly board meeting."
In the most productive examples he studied, Engle found that "each time [an issue] came back to the board, the board … would further narrow the scope and charge to the task force. And that's what made for a successful process."
Management scholars have names for the good and bad versions of conflict: Healthy debate is "cognitive conflict"; personal bickering is "affective conflict." Association boards may be more prone to affective conflict, but task forces and committees can be formed as safe environments for cognitive conflict to take place without veering into the affective kind.
Of the seven groups Engle studied, "two of them did not successfully navigate through and make a positive decision. Both of those had conflict at the board level, and both of those were affective conflict," he says. "So it wasn't the message; it was the messenger that torpedoed the decision."
To read more on Engle's research visit the Resources page at Association Management Center's website. See "AMC Principal Authors Paper and Shares Research" and "Board Decision Making."