Friction on the Board: How to Deal with Challenging Power Dynamics as a Female Board Member

Female board member
Many board members will deal with disagreements and discordant behavior during their tenure.

Serving on a for-profit or not-for-profit board can be quite fulfilling. However, obtaining a board position can be challenging, especially for women. Currently, more than 80% of seats on corporate boards are occupied by men.

Merely attaining a board seat is not the only hurdle. Being a director can bring its own set of unique challenges—including engaging in conflict and being in a charged environment when one or more fellow board members become aggressive, non-collaborative, unethical or otherwise problematic. While these types of discordant behaviors are not typical, they can occur and board members need to be ready to address them.

How does one deal with these situations, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated environment?

How Should Board Members Behave?

Grace Fey, president of Grace Fey Advisors and faculty member in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health program Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value explains, “Most board members are well-meaning. Many, though, have come from running their own companies, so they’re used to making the key decisions and having others execute. The role of a board member is to collaboratively and thoughtfully help guide the organization rather than run it.”

Ellen M. Zane, Co-Program Director of Women on Boards, who was the first female CEO of Tufts Medical Center and is currently Chair of Wellforce, says: “The idea is ‘nose in, and hands out.’ The difference between governance and management is important. A board member needs to make sure from a fiduciary standpoint that he or she is overseeing and governing, but not trying to manage the day-to-day operations.”

What Does “Challenging” Mean on a Board? 

 Board members could be failing to meet the fiduciary, ethical, or work expectations of the position. Or board members might be domineering, not listening, or acting in self-interest. Sometimes a board member’s passion or beliefs may cause them to act in ways that are detrimental to the effective functioning of the entire board. For example, Fey recalls an experience in which a trustee began lobbying for a particular cause by subtly trying to coerce other trustees.

Laurie S. Pascal, Co-Program Director of Women on Boards, says, “Ideally, a board should be composed of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences to provide the greatest benefit to the company. That diversity also brings to the boardroom a variety of individual expectations, interaction styles and world views, which can sometimes create challenges for board management.” She adds, “For example, based on previous experience a board member could bring to discussions a total focus on regulatory issues, which may cause them to be convinced that is the only way to view a particular situation.

In reality, any board member unable to see the perspective of others may cause a problematic shift in board dynamics.

A board member needs to make sure from a fiduciary standpoint that he or she is overseeing and governing, but not trying to manage the day-to-day operations.

The Nuance of Different Board Environments 

Fey says, “For a not-for-profit board, there’s usually a financial commitment on your part and it’s all volunteer. In a for-profit situation, you’re being paid and the environment is often similar to what you might find within a business.”  In general, for-profit boards tend to be smaller and faster paced than not-for-profit boards.

Fey suggests that interested women should start in an area where they have a real passion for the subject as the best way to begin board experience. It is important to know what the environment might be before joining the board. Not-for-profit boards have a higher potential for heated dynamics, and it can be harder to remove a board member than on a for-profit board.

Having not-for-profit experience can prepare someone for a for-profit board role; however, the two environments also look for different kinds of experience. Traditionally, for-profit boards seek out candidates with previous experience as a CEO or top executive, often thought to be the most relevant background, which can present hurdles for women. Not-for-profit board experience can sometimes help bridge the gap.

A board chair needs to help directors or trustees understand their limits, otherwise the entire dynamic will be off.

How to Handle Board Conflict More Effectively

According to Zane, problems can occur when a board and/or its chair emphasize the wrong thing(s) in a board member, like the significance of the person’s donation to the organization instead of the skills necessary to be able to contribute meaningfully. Zane says she’s come into board environments where a sizable percentage of members were the wrong fit—necessitating broad, sweeping change. But a chair who’s unwilling to engage in conflict or to seek to enhance a healthy board dynamic can be a problem beyond the issues demonstrated by any individual board member.

“All roads lead to leadership. A board chair needs to help directors or trustees understand their limits, otherwise the entire dynamic will be off,” she says. According to Pascal, the role of the board chair is to ensure an environment in which there can be an open exchange of ideas and thoughtful dissent. Every board member should be contributing to that climate. When board members speak or act inappropriately, it is necessary to intervene.

Being passive in one’s approach doesn’t work —this is the time for leadership and strong action instead of waiting and hoping the situation goes away. Standing up and addressing conflict directly in a charged environment often requires women to cultivate a particular kind of courage they might not have practiced before, Fey says. This is true not only of the board chair, but of every member of the board. Fey encourages women to practice those skills. “It starts out with respect and recognizing when something’s not working, then communicating that. Be courageous and cultivate that bravery in yourself.”

Pascal says it is important to help a board member see the negative impact of their approach. Fey adds that working with the chair or other board members is key—thinking first and foremost about collaboration and unity. “Tell the chair and say, ‘I’m bothered by this behavior. Are other people feeling the same way?’ Nine out of 10 times, the answer is yes. Or, speak to your fellow board members and find a way to talk to the chair. No matter what, you have to try and do it in the most respectful manner possible.”

Zane adds, “The chair may want to handle it individually, or it could be a collaboration. There’s the quiet, delicate way, or through the yearly self-evaluation that boards often do. The board is evaluated in the aggregate, but you’re also evaluating each other.”

Standing up and addressing conflict directly in a charged environment often requires women to cultivate a particular kind of courage they might not have practiced before.

Important Takeaways

Though each situation is unique, balanced, proactive conflict resolution and focus on preserving the health of a larger whole are key skills for any environment with conflict or behavioral issues.

This potential for conflict also should not deter women from seeking out board positions. Zane explains, “Board service can be incredibly invigorating:  it broadens you, and you get to meet smart people whom you might not otherwise meet.

“Boards typically feel good about themselves at the end of this process and go through a bonding experience,” she adds. “Working to re-establish a strong dynamic can be a very cathartic process for a board and help give it a crisper view of the future.”

Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health offers Women on Boards: Getting On and Adding Value, a leadership program for women aiming to sit on a health care board of directors.