The Fine Art of Managing and Eliminating Board Cliques

It’s human nature to gravitate towards people that are most like us. We like to associate with people who share our opinions, ideologies, and visions. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded people represents the ultimate social and professional comfort zone because it’s an easy place to exist and function. When these relationships become exclusive – allowing no one else in – that is when you find yourself with a clique. Okay, so what’s the problem? People form and remain in cliques all their lives, starting in elementary school and continuing on till later in life. Like I said, it’s natural.

What’s NOT natural – or even healthy – is clique existence in an organization’s Board of Directors. A board is designed to be not only cooperative, but collaborative as well, where every member is open to new ideas, new models, and new strategies. A board is designed to harness the energy of a number of independent people and focus that energy on the advancement of the organization. However, when unhealthy cliques form, these alliances tend to shut out ideas that might be different, and the individuals in the clique begin to view other board members as outsiders. At this point, the board is disjointed at best, and is on the road to being dysfunctional.

So, how do you dismantle these roadblocks before they do damage? Here are three strategies to consider:

  1. Remind the board at the beginning of each meeting of the board mission and its commitment to working as a unified team. This gentle reminder can have a chilling effect on inappropriate sub-teams. Extending board orientation into a year-round objective, with education in each meeting can help keep people open-minded and on the same page.
  2. Assign the members of a particular clique to different task forces, or even differing sets of tasks. This gets them into the habit of working with other people who might have different leadership ideas.
  3. Set aside time for a mini board retreat whenever the board is going to be meeting. It doesn’t have to be over-programmed or fancy. For example, a couple hours together for cocktails and conversation is a great way to get everyone not just talking, but communicating with everyone else on the board.

We should always encourage deeper relationships among board members, but when they get into clique level or inappropriate exclusivity, the cohesion of the board is diminished. Take these three strategies to prevent and disband board cliques.