Fighting Fair in the Boardroom

How to fight fair in the boardroom

Far too often, in many aspects of our life, we avoid discomfort like the plague. I believe that this is all very natural; however, it creates an uncomfortable, sub-optimal environment. One where we never learn how to fight fair.

The usual options that we draw on during intense situations like an argument or robust conversation are: flight – removing ourselves from the discomfort; fight – standing fast in our righteousness until we ‘win’ the argument; or freeze – we sit there and do nothing.

Unfortunately these don’t do us much favour in the boardroom; an environment where we are tasked to have challenging conversations, debate constructively, interrogate reality, face uncomfortable truths, and reach an outcome that we mostly agree on as a united team.

This is where learning how to ‘fight fair’ can actually help your board and organisation reach better decisions that lead to better outcomes for the organisation.

How can you start to fight fair in the boardroom?

If you’re anything like me, these practices are a constant work-in-progress. Fighting fair is one of those things that takes sustained practice for many of us.

Here are six ways in which you can build and contribute to an environment that fights fair when needed.

1. Get agreement from the board on candour

The board as a whole should agree on the shared values it lives and operates by. [tooltip tip=”Candour (or candor): 1. the state or quality of being frank, open, and sincere in speech or expression; candidness. 2. Freedom from bias; fairness; impartiality. – “] Candour [/tooltip] is one such value that exists on boards that see challenges as opportunities.

Consider making candour part of your culture. As this may make people feel uncomfortable and some people may take liberty while couching their behaviour as ‘candid’ when it is, in fact, offensive and rude; however, to make it work, define where the boundaries are and what the consequences are when they are crossed. The Chair needs to carefully manage these conversations.

A softer technique involves appointing a person as the devil’s advocate when a challenging conversation emerges. That way everyone knows who that person is and that they are appointed as the challenger for the purpose of this conversation and pressure-testing possible solutions to challenges.

2. Get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable…

Situations such as having tough conversations and hearing or receiving unwelcome or disappointing information can be extraordinarily uncomfortable. Whilst you can never pre-empt all of the potential situations you will find yourself in as a board member, you can work at getting comfortable and clear-headed during times of uncertainty and high stress.

You can likely start today as there are many home and work situations that can test your fortitude. These posts here and here give you a range of techniques that you can adopt to start becoming comfortable with discomfort.

3. … But get worried when comfort settles in

If you have a board full of people who all think the same and/or are deferential to the Chair, alarm bells should be ringing in your ears. Complacency has killed many organisations over time and continues to do so.

Ensure your board is keeping fresh through diversity, sustainable refreshment, continued learning and development, adopting new techniques and methods for working through challenges, and engaging specialists when need be.

4. Maintain a hold on your emotions

Losing control of your emotions in high-stakes situations generally does you no favours. Think about a time where you witnessed someone in a leadership position lose his or her composure during an intense moment (or worse, when you lost your cool). How did your opinion of them (you) change?

Chances are it was not positive and it permanently negatively impacted your (and others’) relationship with them after that point.

In the boardroom many eyes are on you and evaluating your ability to cope under pressure. So you have to be extra cautious of knee-jerk reactions to things you don’t agree with or, conversely, feel strongly in favour of.

This post on gives you some practical strategies to adopt that build your emotional intelligence (EQ) and keep your composure during challenging meetings.

5. Contribute meaningfully to the conversation, even if it’s not going your way

Sulking in a corner when things don’t go your way is not an option in the boardroom (actually it’s not an option as an adult). Dropping your ego attachment to your thoughts, ideas, and perspectives is useful advice for any person seeking to be in a leadership position. It will help you deal with others’ disagreement of your idea – it’s not a rejection of you personally.

When the conversation moves in another direction from where you want it to go, don’t disconnect from the group. Continue to contribute where you can. A good idea is to ask questions to fully understand and appropriately challenge the ideas / solutions on the table. Remember to keep it reasonable and “adultish”.

6. Accept the decision of the group

Whatever decision is made on a board is as if the board as a whole made it – and that’s the image you need to project outside of the boardroom.

Unless it’s dire, be a good team player and accept the decision of your fellow board members. Sometimes it’s a bitter pill to swallow, but being a good team player is much of the boardroom politics that is par for the course as a board member.


Much of fighting fair comes down to your own behaviours, and you setting the example of how to appropriately utilise uncomfortable situations as an asset, rather than something to shy away from or avoid entirely.


This post was inspired by the HBR article Boards Must Be More Combative.

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