The Many Personalities of Board Members

By: Samantha Whitehorne

Some board members are more challenging to work with than others, but you can learn to understand even the most confusing board personalities.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the January 2010 Associations Now Interactive Extra.

Board members bring their perspectives and personalities to the table every meeting. And, as you know, with the good personality traits also come the not-so-good ones.

"No matter what personality, the first thing you need to do is try to determine the reasons for the behavior so you can engage them the best way possible," says Shari Frisinger, president of CornerStone Strategies, LLC.

Below, learn about each personality type and how to work more effectively with your table mates who may fit the profile. (Plus, get tips on what to do if you are displaying these personality traits.)

Signs of Yes Board Members

  • A lot of nodding and smiling.
  • Continue to just agree no matter what.
  • Nonassertive to the point that they become invisible.

Why are they acting that way? They have a fear of not being liked or accepted in the group. They have been told at some point in their lives not to cause waves and to fly under the radar. "In the fight, flight, or freeze, they are in the freeze. They are minimizing their own emotions," says Frisinger.

If you have a yes board member … "Emphasize with them that to do what's best for the organization, that you like some dissension and discussion," Frisinger says. "If you've got a yes person, you've got groupthink going on, and in groupthink, there's no innovation." Encourage wild and impossible ideas, with the understanding that when these ideas are presented they cannot be immediately shot down. "Yes people have good ideas; they are just afraid to say them," she says.

If it's you … "If you really do agree, go ahead and say so," says Frisinger. But if you're on the fence, just say you'd like to think about it or check on a few things, so that you look engaged and can come back with a more informed decision.

Signs of Micromanagers

  • Total control freaks.
  • Not willing to delegate.
  • Assume everything is their responsibility.

Why are they acting that way? Micro-managers tend to act this way about things that are really important to them or that they value. "Often, micromanagers have low self-confidence, so they build up their confidence by taking control of everything," says Frisinger. "They also tend to have a total disregard for other people's perspectives. They feel like they're fighting and are in a hostile environment, so micromanaging is a way for them to control these things."

If you have a micromanaging board member … "Acknowledge, but don't agree with them about their process and way of doing things," says Frisinger. She suggests that when you offer up another way of handling a project or task, take responsibility for it, so the micromanager doesn't feel the pressure to do so. "Say something like, 'This is my project from the beginning. No matter what happens, I'll take responsibility for it,'" Frisinger says. "This will calm them down a bit."

If it's you … Everyone can be a micromanager about certain things, but one of the easiest things to do is make sure you don't come across as too authoritarian. "Watch your tone of voice and how stern you are being," says Frisinger. "It also helps to ask yourself if this will matter tomorrow, in a week, or in a few months. If not, you may want to relax a bit." Also, if you have had a bad experience in the past, share it and use it as a way to get the conversation going.

Signs of Devil's Advocates

  • Like to feel in control.
  • Think they are right.
  • Nitpicking every detail.

Why are they acting that way? "They like the power and like to be perceived as the expert. That's what's most important to them," says Frisinger. "They need to have their expertise acknowledged. They are in the fight zone—something is being threatened with them. We fight because our ego, credibility, [or] reputation is being threatened."

If you have a devil's advocate board member … Acknowledgement, not agreement, comes in handy with devil's advocates. "If they're telling you how it needs to be done and you agree, you're pretty well sunk and backed yourself into a corner," Frisinger says. "When you suggest things to this person or want to do something differently, make your thinking visible. Explain why you're doing it, so you have something more tangible to discuss." Also, it's important to remain on the offensive with the devil's advocate. "Do not go on the defensive with them," she says.

If it's you … Ask yourself why you're acting this way. Is this question, point, or issue really relevant? Is it going to make a difference in the bigger picture? "It's like picking your battles," says Frisinger. "If you believe you're bringing up a good point, explain why you're doing so. Explain the consequences of taking the opposite action."

Signs of Detached Board Members

  • Zoned out.
  • Not participating in the discussion.
  • Look miserable.

Why are they acting that way? "Their mind believes they're in an unfavorable environment," says Frisinger. "They can be ruled by fear." Frisinger also adds that detached board members can have low self-esteem and self-confidence and are afraid of getting too involved, so they choose to flee.

In addition, she says, the board member's behavior could be as simple as the fact that something else has got his or her attention. "It could be a personal or family issue that they're dealing with," she says.

If you have a detached board member … Ask a question. "Simply say something like, 'Stan, you usually have a different perspective. What's your opinion of this?'" However, whether it's the first time this board member has acted detached—or the 12th—you should be willing to pull him aside and tell him that his behavior is noticeable. "You should also offer to talk it over with them or at least ask them if there is anything you can do to help," Frisinger says.

If it's you … The first step is to acknowledge it. Of course, topics that you are not necessarily passionate about can cause a bit of detachment. "If you find this is occurring, you need to really be self-aware and try to focus in on the meeting," she says. But if it's happening more and more, it may be time to honestly consider whether you should stay.

Samantha Whitehorne is managing editor of Associations Now. Email: [email protected]

Samantha Whitehorne

Samantha Whitehorne is editorial director of Associations Now in Washington, DC.