American Association for Physician Leadership

Motivations and Thinking Style

Five Ways Executives Can Manage Conflict with the Board

Sabina Nawaz

May 17, 2024


High stakes, strong wills, and increasing uncertainty can make decisions at the top of your organization fraught. The backing of a board can mobilize an organization, but a significant divergence of vision and values may lead the board to stall progress on an organization’s highest priorities — and even unseat a CEO. Executives must proactively and productively make covert disagreements overt and foster a healthy dialog with board members.

In a world rife with conflict, few of us want to engage in more. But some situations come packaged with contention no matter how averse we are to it. CEOs and their executive teams tackle fraught situations daily. Routine internal pressures have been exacerbated by recent macroeconomic scarcity, global conflict, and technological disruption, among other complications.

Ideally, executives don’t have to face these challenges alone. They have the support of their boards of directors. But the high stakes, the strong wills and personalities of successful, high-powered people, and the heaps of uncertainty ensure that challenges at this level are accompanied by interpersonal conflict. The backing of a board can help mobilize an organization to achieve its most ambitious aspirations, but a significant divergence of vision and values may lead the board to stall progress on an organization’s highest priorities — and even unseat a CEO.

Because contentions impact direction, strategy, and morale organization-wide, it’s important to learn how to navigate conflict with the board. Leaders must proactively and productively make covert disagreements overt and foster a healthy dialog. Otherwise, they may fall victim to decisions made outside the room and behind our backs.

Here are five strategies for navigating conflict with your board.

Be the Thermostat

Organizations take their cue on conflict from the CEO. Are you comfortable raising tough topics? Are you open to differing perspectives? As a group, will your board feel comfortable challenging you and supporting you? Will they ask provocative questions you may have avoided facing? Are you then able to have productive conversations?

When Yaniv, an executive client of mine, replaced the founding CEO of a rapidly growing billion-dollar services firm, he first decided to establish the tone for his board interactions. He didn’t create a formal list of norms — the kind that elicits head nods around the table only to be forgotten when real disagreements surface. Instead, Yaniv modeled the behavior he wanted. At the first board meeting, he named all the concerns that he’d heard of in one-off conversations with his executive team and some board members. For example, the board was uncertain whether the company could continue its rapid growth. Some were worried about Yaniv’s youth. Three of the seasoned executives he now managed had coveted the CEO role. If they were to leave, they might take valuable lieutenants with them.

After stating these and other issues, Yaniv invited his board to add to them. A couple more topics were added. Collectively, they prioritized how to address these items.

Proactively naming these smoldering concerns helped extinguish potential conflict rather than fuel it. Yaniv further forwarded the tough conversations by asking, “What do we agree on?” “What do we disagree on?” “If we were successful in addressing this, who would stand to lose something? “What’s the last 10% you haven’t shared?”

Maintaining the “temperature” for tough conversations with the board allows you to tackle a potential conflict before it becomes destructive. It increases the board’s confidence that you know what’s going on and allows them to provide you with early helpful feedback.

Share Early

With any conflict it’s best to inform all parties of the full situation and its status early and often. This is especially true with boards because the stakes are high, and it’s possible the board might get concerned or act without your knowledge if things get worse.

Does a problem have the potential to become bigger and more conflict-ridden in the future? If so, share now, so the board is not surprised later or informed first by someone else. Generate a list of questions that your toughest critics might ask to anticipate the types of concerns that might be raised. If an issue has occurred to you and is critical to the business, raise it. When I work with executives, I counsel them to raise possible objections at the beginning of their presentation, so others more easily get on board, knowing their concerns are already being considered.

Break It Down

Unless there’s a clear breach of ethics, conflict with the board is rarely binary or unanimous. If there are rumblings of dissension about a recent decision you made, a lack of confidence in someone on your team whom you endorse, or concerns about low employee morale in the recent employee survey, for example, identify the sources of discontent. Understand who has concerns, who is neutral, who has an opposing viewpoint, and who agrees with you. Instead of taking on the board wholesale on sensitive topics, work with individuals first: seek allies, and lean into dissenters, despite the inclination to avoid them.

Anahita, the CEO of a retail chain, first learned of a concern about product strategy through veiled questions during a board meeting. She knew something didn’t feel right, but instead of calling out the tension in the meeting, she spoke afterward to five board members separately. In those private conversations she learned that a couple of members were concerned about a competitive threat and were not only vocal in sharing their concerns, but also quite dire in their predictions. Anahita called these individuals directly to identify the source of their worry. She learned new data, but also shared information she had that was unknown to the board members. Because board members were unaware of measures the company was already taking to stay ahead of the issue, she was able to defuse additional concerns. At the next board meeting, Anahita thanked the two members who’d raised concerns, shared the facts to address them, and asked, “What else do you know that I don’t know? What would our critics say? What can we learn from that?”

By identifying and engaging with individual viewpoints, you’re able to both fully understand each perspective while avoiding blowing up an issue beyond proportion. You also demonstrate courage and confidence when you approach dissenters directly and with curiosity.

Expand It

Executives must keep a long and broad view in mind. If the board is reactive to a short-term crisis (the economic landscape, for example), ensure you also bring in the long view. Reframing or enlarging the frame of a challenge to include the broader competitive landscape or the customer perspective can sometimes completely change the solutions we implement. We might react to a short-term challenge with a big move that could have long-term consequences. The benefits of immediate, drastic action are clear in the heat of the moment but what about the cost of carrying this decision a year from now?

When faced with short-term discussions or immediate crises where the board is feeling the urge to take quick action, ask them broad questions to realign their focus on the long term. For instance, a year from now, what will we regret more? How do we balance the finances with the product strategy to survive the short term and thrive in the long term? You’re concerned about the impact on budget, what about the impact on PR or the customer?

“And” It

The pitched battle of many conflicts is about choice A vs. choice B. Each faction passionately advocates and re-advocates the benefits of their preference while the other party becomes further entrenched in their own and opposite convictions.

However, many fractious situations are more of an “and” instead of an “or.” Author Barry Johnson calls these “polarities,” two interdependent opposites where both are essential over time to have a healthy, functioning system. Should we focus on the short term or the long term? How about quality or cost? Process or innovation? The answer is yes! Despite this, we expend energy debating and swinging wildly between choice A and B until each becomes untenable.

The next time you’re ready to pitch a battle for your side of an either-or false dichotomy, ask yourself, “I know my side is necessary, but if we only pivot to this side, what are the downsides?” Have each faction temporarily take the other party’s side. Faction A should consider the benefits of option B and the pitfalls of option A, and vice versa. Soon it becomes evident that both options have downsides and upsides, and both options may be necessary. Therefore, as Johnson says, instead of arguing for one over the other, align on how to maximize the upsides and minimize the downsides of both.

When pressure and power meet in the types of topics usually discussed between a board and the CEO, one way to keep your footing is to name the pressures, set the tone, and then connect not just with those who echo your thoughts but with everyone else around the table too.

Copyright 2024 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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Sabina Nawaz

Sabina Nawaz is a global CEO coach, leadership keynote speaker, and writer working in over 26 countries. She advises C-level executives in Fortune 500 corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and academic organizations. Sabina has spoken at hundreds of seminars, events, and conferences including TEDx and has written for,, and, in addition to Follow her on Twitter.

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