|The Exasperated CEO's Guide to Troubleshooting Bad Board Behavior
EXECUTIVE UPDATE, February 2005
The Dominator. The Clueless. The Waste of Space. The Flame Thrower. The Naysayer. Look around the table at your next board meeting, and you'll likely spot at least one of these disruptive individuals. Association leaders cannot ignore such inappropriate or unproductive behavior, but exactly how they go about addressing it can lead to delicate, face-saving resolution or political and professional disaster.
By: Susan S. Stratton, CAE, MEd, ARM
Sure, the board is made up of adults — on paper. But that doesn't mean they can't also act like spoiled children in need of a time out. What's a CEO to do?
Board members come into the job with personal agendas and often-incorrect assumptions about the responsibility of association governance. Further, they frequently have little skill in group dynamics and the art of thinking together. The result is that individual board members default to what they do best in order to control the situation. In other words, some directors revert to behaviors that manipulate others so they can get what they want. Below are five of the most common manipulative behaviors, as well as strategies to neutralize them.
Be aware that for best results and long-term job security, an association CEO should not directly address individuals who exhibit these behaviors. Difficult communication is best received from peers — the volunteer officers. Your board chair or other officers, with behind-the-scenes coaching from you as CEO, should directly intervene in the manner recommended.
This type of board member is in constant reactive mode and is a poor listener. She likes to create urgency because if she solves the urgent problem, she can be a heroine. This style is often viewed as controlling, opinionated, and egotistical. The person wants to "just get the job done with the best solution" — which, of course, has already been expressed by the Dominator.
Solution: Because disorganized feedback from the chair will only give the Dominator reason to be more forceful, the board chair should speak privately to the person in a conversation that is direct, clear, specific, and to the point, giving evidence that shows little support from the whole group on the ideas expressed by the Dominator. If the dominating behavior persists, a public response is necessary.
During the board meeting, a scaling technique can be used to demonstrate the level of support for an idea. When the Dominator presents an idea, the first question the chair should ask the entire board is, "Is this a shared concern?" The chair also might ask, "On a scale from 10 to one, with 10 indicating you have a lot of passion or energy for this concern or idea, how would you rank this?" The board should only discuss the concern further if there is a predominance of energy around the table. If most board members do not share the concern, the chair should proceed with the agenda to limit the board's time on matters insignificant to the membership.
If the Dominator happens to sit in the chair position, the chair-elect — with support from other officers — may need to be the person who steps in to privately offer support to this individual by working through agendas together or serving as a mentor.
The long-term solution here is board training and awareness that the power and privilege of being on a board is to participate in the board's group process. It does not give special privilege to anyone to pursue personal agendas or ideas not commonly shared as priorities of the whole.
The Flame Thrower
The Flame Thrower appears to have no impulse control or self-discipline. He often makes outrageous statements, promotes gossip, and is driven to comment on every contribution. This style of board member may be the most likely candidate for identification as "troublesome," since he exhibits unfocused, unpredictable, moody, and narcissistic behaviors.
Solution: The worst thing you can do is ignore the situation; it will only flare further out of control. With the Flame Thrower, the first step is a private conversation focused on the how this behavior is disrespectful to other board members. The chair should address the concerns of inappropriateness and review the rules of engagement for the board.
Second, agree on a helpful intervention during meetings, since this individual is not likely to be aware of her own inappropriateness. Such an intervention might include seating an officer next to the Flame Thrower, so someone can give subtle signals, such as the touch of an arm, when the line of appropriateness is being crossed. Publicly, the chair must not react to the inappropriate remarks, instead choosing to douse the situation by staying focused on the big picture. The chair and/or parliamentarian also should enforce the rules of engagement (Robert's Rules of Order or other agreed-on parameters), insisting that people raise their hands and wait to be recognized before speaking, so the board may have an orderly, balanced debate.
This board member is critical of almost any idea or solution offered, turning complaining and whining into new art forms. A Naysayer often rolls his eyes, shakes his head, or inhales loudly with dramatic flair but offers little to advance the conversation. He prefers simply to throw a wet blanket on every idea.
Solution: The chair should provide a safe, open forum to air each person's comments and encourage the board to actively listen with an open heart and suspend personal judgment until all ideas have been fully explored. The chair also should employ the board's rules of engagement to ensure that diverse opinions are shared. When the Naysayer finishes nixing, the chair should ask if anyone perceives positive aspects in the concept presented.
Because we often get drawn into thinking that only two competing solutions exist per situation, it's often worthwhile to encourage a third alternative. The chair could encourage positive contributions by directly asking the Naysayer if, in the person's opinion, any solutions would or could work.
The Waste of Space
This board member sits through an entire meeting without saying a word, causing the rest of the board to wonder why the Waste of Space ran for office in the first place. This individual does not seem to pay attention during meetings, does not follow through on assignments, and exhibits a passive-aggressive or apathetic attitude.
Such behavior likely results from one of three situations:
- The board member may simply need time to process information and form an opinion before speaking (e.g., the pace of the meeting may not allow the Waste of Space enough time to generate an opinion). In the normal course of a meeting, when the Dominator jumps in, the interruption disrupts the Waste of Space's opinion-making process, and an authentic response is never formed.
Solution: The board chair should provide the framework for discussion of each new agenda item, clearly identifying questions and sharing any relevant information. When discussion begins, the board chair should allow everyone in the room a few minutes to jot down their opinions before opening the floor to comments. This process will create space for those favoring a hands-on, trial-and-error style to process data deeply and to mentally draft a personal position.
- This person was sent as a liaison or messenger between the board and a constituency, or the board and an influential member who no longer serves on the board. Since this individual perceives his role as messenger and not as representational voice, he may believe he has no right to voice a personal opinion. This often happens when a chapter sends a national director to speak for the chapter. The Waste of Space interprets his role to mean that he cannot speak until he has been instructed to do so by the chapter.
Solution: In the short term, be specific on the published agenda about what questions the board will be discussing, so the constituency can send a timely message with the messenger. A long-term solution is to conduct board training about what good board service looks like. Training should emphasize that board members represent the whole membership rather than a single constituency, that participants should actively listen to and consider a range of opinions generated by the personal convictions of board colleagues, and that board members should use the unique voices only they can bring to the table because of their own life experiences and perspectives.
- The board member is totally out of his league of capability. Overwhelmed, he shuts down, withdrawing from participation in the process in any way.
Solution: This person needs training and coaching as a board member. Assigning an officer or mentor for up to six months to walk through the agenda, share methods for reviewing board materials, and debrief after each meeting may boost his understanding and lessen the emotional tidal wave that appears to engulf him at board meetings.
The Clueless board member enthuses about board service because he can help "get the right things done," but he has no idea how to go about governing an organization. He comes to board work with one or two issues, which suck up endless discussion time meeting after meeting. The person's narrow focus is an obsession in his life, and he draws it into every conversation. He also misinterprets board materials related to his pet issues and fails to read unrelated board materials prior to the meeting, which results in unpreparedness.
Solution: The board chair's short-term solution with Clueless is, first, a private conversation acknowledging the problematic individual's concern, defining the inappropriateness of the behavior, and emphasizing the need to read materials and address issues that cover the entire range of the organization. Second, if Clueless remains so, then during the meeting the chair can appropriately and tactfully restate the opinion expressed by the individual and directly ask the relevance of the statement to the current debate. Restating the opinion assures the speaker that the message was heard. When people believe they haven't been heard, they become more intense, express their opinion more loudly and more persistently, or speak with more emotion.
Long-term, the best solution is developing a systematic recruitment, selection, and development process for board members. These high-level volunteers must recognize that the organization has competing priorities and that the board's job is to focus on the big picture. Such understanding comes with persistent, consistent board training.
Is Peace Possible?
When one person paralyzes the board and restrains substantive process or dialogue, organizational effectiveness is undermined. Most board members believe it is the job of the board chair to handle problem situations, but in fact, the board chair is only the first among equals. The whole board is responsible for its own job discipline, job development, and job performance.
Every board must tend to its shadows. Individual board members, at the urging and with the coaching of the association CEO, should act with moral courage and tactfully bring uncomfortable issues to light, focusing on the true nature of the problem rather than on blaming. The issue of enabling inappropriate or disruptive behavior at the board level is much bigger than appeasing an individual's ego or avoiding controversy; it is a critical factor in organizational effectiveness that flows through every level of the organization.
Author Link: Susan Stratton is the owner of Leading Edge Mentoring, a governance and leadership consulting firm based in Michigan. She facilitates board retreats, board orientations and training, and board planning sessions. Stratton also facilitates the online CAE exam prep course sponsored by the Michigan Society of Association Executives. She can be reached at (517) 627-1856; email@example.com; www.leadingedgementoring.com.
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This was very helpful especially with the suggested actions to take. The one area not covered in the troublesome board members was the Board Chair that won't partner with the first CEO in the organization! I have encountered severl indiences of this in my conversations with CEOs.
Thank you Susan Stratton!!! We have 2 Board members who behave badly and it seems as though it's getting worse. As the Executive Director, I have been perplexed about what the appropriate way of handling these problems would be without stepping on toes. I hope to find other articles written on this site by Susan Stratton because this one has been extremely enlightening.
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