Decision making is a process that often occurs against a background of varying levels of uncertainty (see also our SGA advice on principles of sound decision making, ). To manage that uncertainty, we strive to make decisions in a rational, systematic manner. But decision making cannot be entirely rational because we are all inherently influenced by our education, history, experience, cultural and social networks, emotions and personal motivations. All of these factors impact our behaviour and opinions. Thus, when 8–12 individuals in a room attempt to make collective decisions, it can lead to conflicts and tensions.

However, while conflict is to be avoided as detrimental to effective decision making, a degree of tension in the boardroom is beneficial to aiding quality of decisions. Disagreement, alternative opinions, diversity of viewpoints can all lead to an informed exploration of alternatives before a final decision is made. The key is to establish the right amount: too much can decrease organisational performance and negatively impact on decision making; too little can result in a complacent board that fails to critically evaluate relevant information, lacks innovative and creative ideas and makes decisions too quickly.

To avoid this, understanding how to manage conflict and tension in the board room or within committees and even subcommittees is essential.

Managing conflict and tension

The Chartered Governance Institute and Henley Business School produced a report that provides thorough . Here, we provide an overview of the main points from that report which can help sports organisations to make effective decisions or recognise how to manage conflict to improve decision making in the boardroom.

Some key findings from the report include:

  • Tension can be defined as disagreement which is often uncomfortable but can be resolved by healthy debate. It is a positive force in the boardroom.
  • Conflict is regarded as aggressive tension that usually escalates to extreme and unresolvable levels. It is disruptive and damaging to the board.
  • Tension and conflicts can be structural, personal or historical.
  • Structural tension occurs due to different role responsibilities and priorities and is normal in a well-functioning board.
  • Personal or personality conflict can be unhealthy if left unresolved.
  • Personal issues and conflict can be resolved through acknowledgement of individual points of view and encouragement to re-focus on the organisation’s priorities rather than individual ones.
  • Conflict resolution may need to take place outside of the boardroom to avoid distracting the board from their responsibilities.
  • The chair and the governance lead play important roles in managing conflict and may lead an informal conversation outside of the boardroom to resolve personal conflict issues, maintaining boardroom time for strategy and business of the board.

It can be helpful to understand the sources of conflict in your organisation, to better understand where you may concentrate conflict management efforts. Sources of conflict include:

  • Differentiation (number of sub-units to complete tasks) Requires greater communication between sub-units and hence increases the chance for misunderstanding.
  • Interdependence The more units are dependent upon one another to complete their work, the greater the chance for conflict
  • Low formalisation Lack of formal rules and policies can create confusion, unfair treatment or decisions and conflict
  • Competition over resources Internal competition for resources can be healthy and can highlight highly effective personnel but if resources are required to function and can’t always be accessed, it can be seen as wasteful to some and confl

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