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Dealing with problems and disputes between trustees

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Use this page to learn about how to broadly encourage positive trustee relationships and manage disputes.

As a collective group of decision-makers, it’s important that trustees develop positive relationships and work well together.

How conflict arises

An important part of a trustee’s role is to offer constructive challenge, when discussing and making decisions on behalf of the charity. Some disagreement is a healthy part of collective decision-making. Though, where a disagreement cannot be resolved, a serious disagreement or conflict can arise.

Conflict may arise between individual trustees because of:

  • Differences in opinion
  • Differences in approach
  • Individual behaviours

However the root cause of conflict may not be immediately obvious. There are a number of possible underlying causes that could contribute to a conflict:

  • Personality clashes
  • Fixed opinions or beliefs
  • Personal issues affecting behaviour in a professional context
  • Favouritism or existing relationships taking priority
  • Disagreement on values or goals
  • Uncertainty around individual roles and the role of the board
  • Lack of clarity about expectations

The role of good governance in dealing with disputes

Clear roles, policies and processes are crucial in making sure a board is run well. They also help to prevent and deal with disputes.

An agreed code of conduct for meetings can support trustees in addressing issues as they arise. This is a document which sets out:

  • How the board will behave
  • What trustees need and expect from each other
  • How differences will be handled
  • The shared responsibility of the board for creating the right atmosphere

It's important that every trustee understands what the code of conduct means in practice and that any differences in interpretation are addressed.

It’s usually the responsibility of the chair to manage dynamics between trustees, and they should aim to address disputes early to make sure they don’t get in the way of good decision-making.

The Association of Chairs offers guidance and workshops to help chairs ensure their trustees work well together.

Steps to dealing with trustees causing problems

Individual trustees can cause problems. If a trustee’s behaviour or approach is causing problems or making it difficult for the board to carry out its role, there are steps you can take.

Attempt to resolve the issue informally

As early as possible, the matter should be addressed with the individual directly to see if it can be informally resolved. It's important to try to understand why the trustee is causing problems.

It helps to think about this in the context of the underlying causes above. Try to approach the issue with curiosity and have an open conversation about what's going on with them.

This conversation may be challenging and cause anxiety. To help you with this, read our guidance on how to approach challenging conversations as a board member.

Use the code of conduct to encourage behaviour change

Trustees can make use of an agreed code of conduct for meetings to explain the issue and agree on how the trustee’s behaviour will need to change going forward. This discussion may need external mediation to make sure it’s productive.

Use external mediation

Mediation is when an independent, trained conflict expert helps you and the person you're in conflict with to move forward in a better way. This is a voluntary process and both parties need to agree to it.

The mediator is there to guide a confidential conversation between you and the other person, so that you can both be heard. If successful, you will come away with a signed agreement or a deeper understanding of the situation that allows you to move forward.

Find out more about Crux’s mediation service.

In some circumstances, the only viable solution may be to remove the trustee from the board. This may be through a vote of no confidence or a similar resolution.

Removing a trustee in this way should be a last resort, except in cases of misconduct which should be formally investigated.

Find out more about removing a trustee.

NCVO worked with Philip Guthrie from Crux to create this guidance.

This page was last reviewed for accuracy on 29 April 2022

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