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Learn to Manage Your Differences for a More Innovative Board

This blog was contributed by Carol J. Sutton, Cert. ConRes. a professional mediator and Principal at CJS Communications Inc. She helps clients improve interpersonal relationships among people in order to increase collaboration and productivity. Methods include facilitation, organizational planning, team building, training and coaching activities - with a particular focus on workplace conflict management - designed to improve business results.

Leadership. Drive. Achievement. Excellence. Today, a lot is expected from a Board of Directors and the ability to work together to reach these demanding goals becomes increasingly crucial to obtaining the results your organization expects. Sometimes the best way to achieve this is through a little constructive conflict. Disagreement, when managed well, can generate strikingly productive outcomes. 

Thrive on Disagreement
Often, the best way to stimulate the creative juices is through “creative abrasion”1 – rubbing one’s mind against others’ to produce new and improved concepts and procedures.  When people do this well, the organization flourishes, not despite differences but because of them. To thrive on disagreement is to capture the energy of the debate, and make it serve one’s best interests. 

Organizations – companies, boards, teams, etc. – who create ways to make the most of their diversity share a variety of essential characteristics2, such as having common goals firmly in place; basing discussion on facts rather than opinion; developing a wide range of options instead of just a few alternatives, and ensuring everyone feels comfortable speaking up. Not least among the commonalities is humour; teams that can lighten up and let off steam among the whole group are also able to disagree, respectfully.

Manage Your Differences
Does talk of exploring many alternatives and allowing disagreement about them make you think of conflict? Conflict is possible if the discourse is not handled well and that may sound dangerous; after all, don’t we strive for harmony on the Board? 

Well, not necessarily, because it is not the existence of differences between and among Board members that may provoke conflict.  Rather, negative reactions may emerge from how we express and handle our differences.

These same differences may just as easily generate positive developments when they are managed skillfully. Only through sharing our differing opinions, beliefs, experiences and goals can any group of people exceed their individual boundaries. 

Create Positive Outcomes
Each of us has the power to choose our response to people and circumstances. In fact, humans are the only beings on the planet able to separate stimulus from response and choose a reaction.  We have the power to choose how we will engage, speak, listen, hear, interpret and respond. Our choices shape the outcome of our interactions and create an effect, either positive or negative. 

At its most basic, just the discovery of a different point of view can enable us to see something that had not occurred to us individually. Through sharing ideas openly, focused on what a person says – not his or her personality – we are able to generate fewer problems and greater benefits than any one of our preferences might have produced on its own.

Research has repeatedly substantiated that sharing our differences is the basis for generating “creative abrasion” through fruitful dissent.

Another study reports, “When managed correctly, conflict produces the following results: new ideas for changing organizational processes, solving of continuous problems, a chance for workers to expand their capabilities, and the introduction of creativity into thoughts about organizational problems.”3 

Reap the Benefits
Understanding your own and others’ communication and conflict styles can help you to master creative abrasion and produce benefits for your organization. Directors benefit from an increased capacity to manage their differences productively, and the organization benefits from the Board members’ increased creativity and innovation. 


  1. Putting Your Company’s Whole Brain to Work”, Dorothy Leonard and Susaan Straus; Harvard Business Review, July-August 1997
  2. “How Management Teams Can Have a Good Fight”; Kathleen M. Eisenhardt, Jean L. Kahwajy, L.J. Bourgeois III; Harvard Business Review, July-August 1997.
  3. Center for the Study of Work Teams, University of North Texas; Michael Kennedy, 1998


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