How to manage (and allow) ego in the boardroom

How can you get a team of smart, confident people who have different perspectives and backgrounds to work together? This is the challenge for all effective company boards.

‘In order to create energy, you need friction.’

It is becoming more common practice for companies to fill their boardrooms with members that bring a diverse range of thoughts and experiences. This is an important element of good governance and avoids the pitfalls of ‘groupthink’. However, in a room full of confident people with differing perspectives, tension and opposed opinions are inevitably going to rise. 

And who is to say this is a bad thing? Debate and constructive interrogation of the facts are essential components of an effective board. The challenge is preventing this from overspilling into out and out conflict. How do you manage the egos, the tension and the rivalries to effectively reach the ultimate goal: the best decision for the company?


Ego can be a good thing

The word ‘ego’ has become shorthand for ‘inflated or over-sized ego’; however, ego is about confidence in your abilities. So some ego mixed with wisdom and self-awareness is the best combination for the boardroom. Effective companies recruit board members who are confident enough to share their ideas and expertise. 

In this way, a little ego is a good thing. Companies want passionate people who are willing to speak up and interrogate each other’s perspectives. So when choosing board members, the challenge is to bring in people who also have the self-awareness to work with those they disagree with for the good of the company. 


Don’t fear tension - manage it.

Tension is almost inevitable in a board and is seen by many as a good thing. However, not enough tension is often a sign of a lack of diversity. This lack of diverse perspectives can lead to ‘groupthink’ and an ineffective board. 

“A good board is one with managed tension, while a dysfunctional board allows it to fester and escalate into conflict.” The impulse is to smooth over tension by not engaging with the situation. However, it’s only by embracing the process and shining a light on opposed opinions that members can make the best decisions. 

The challenge is to create an environment that welcomes alternate viewpoints and makes it comfortable for people to express them.


Ensure the good of the company is at the heart of every decision

This may sound obvious but it’s hard for even the best board members to completely put aside their personal rivalries and opinions. However, to judge a decision solely for the good of the company is what board members are there to do, even if they don’t personally like it.

“Bruised egos are fine; hurt feelings are not.” Conflict, when people are fighting for their own opinions rather than looking at what is best for the company, is disruptive to a board’s effectiveness. The Chair needs to foster an atmosphere of constructive challenge, ensuring that all board members feel part of the team. 

The challenge is to focus board members on their duty to the company and depersonalise tension with achievement-orientated goals. Competence should always resolve the debate over status. 


Select an effective chairperson

The responsibility for a productive board that manages tension and avoids conflict sits largely with the chairperson. He or she needs to create an environment of constructive challenge, guiding the discussion rather than leading it. As Jon Stokes and Sue Dopson eloquently put it: “Leaders are like farmers. Farmers don’t grow crops; farmers create the conditions for crops to grow.”

When it comes to managing egos, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. The chairperson is (or should be) in the unique position of having the greatest knowledge and understanding of each board member's different talents and experience. They should use this to sensitively channel the team forward productively.

The chairperson should be there to help the group reach a consensus, not make it for them.


And finally, don’t ignore the little things

And finally, a little tip to not ignore the little things. It is easier to hold onto ego when the stakes are low. Opinions on supposedly trivial matters that have fewer consequences are where conflict can start. Consider the tips above, no matter the size of the subject at hand.


For a company to build a truly efficient board of directors, ego and tension are going to be present. Rather than fearing these elements, embrace them as part of the process. Shine a light that the differing perspectives and create an atmosphere of constructive challenge.

What do you think are the most important elements of an effective board?