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  • Writer's pictureNonprofit Learning Lab

Board Members Behaving Badly

Updated: Jun 9, 2023

This is a guest blog post and is being posted with permission from Cindi Phallen of Create Possibility

If you’re in this nonprofit business long enough, it’s bound to happen sometime. In fact, twice in the last month I witnessed board members calling out Executive Directors in a meeting for things they thought the ED should have done.  Publicly – in front of others. It was awkward at best and shocking, even traumatic, for some.

How could someone who is counted on to be a trusted partner treat the ED so disrespectfully??

And you may have other examples. Not all are as caustic. They may not follow through; or they may ignore your call; or they may forge ahead and make a mistake with a community leader before you had a chance to brief them.

But I’m not talking about those things. Usually, board members act with the best of intentions and may not realize their absence really matters. Or may not have thought about getting more background about someone before meeting with them.  Easy to move past that stuff and work through it.

I want to talk about the actual damaging behavior that stems from a deeper issue. It’s not okay to allow board members to disrespect each other, staff or anyone else. These negative actions affect everyone around them and create a toxic environment.  Who wants to be a part of that?

It wipes out the fun and destroys the ability for teams to work together toward your important mission goals.

If you find yourself facing this type of dilemma, try these 3 steps to eliminate the problem:

1. Take action! Ignoring the bad behavior means you’re playing a part in normalizing the behavior. Nope, not okay. I understand this could be intimidating but the long-term damage could be insurmountable.  Someone, and I recommend a peer who witnessed the inappropriate behavior, should follow up with this board member privately. Their peer will explain how it felt to others in the room (speaking only for themselves), and ask what was behind the behavior. The goal here is to find out as much as possible about their motivation for acting that way. The peer needs good listening skills and should show some compassion. At the same time, it’s important that the board member who was at fault understand the behavior can’t happen again and perhaps even be willing to apologize.

2. Bring the person who was targeted into the conversation. Now that you understand the reason for the action, start to solve it. At this point the peer may play the role of facilitator in an effort to diffuse the situation and arrive at a mutually agreeable solution. If the rude behavior came from a place of frustration, identify the source and start exploring options to improve whatever is bothering the board member. Again, it’s important to reiterate an alternate approach is required. If you’re lucky, it may just be a matter of miscommunication and can be easily ironed out. The targeted person must be willing to forgive and move on and the board member must agree to adjust their behavior.

3. Involve the entire board and leadership staff in a discussion about culture and values. If you already have a board culture statement, review it and ask the board if they feel their behavior is still aligned with it. If you don’t, what a great opportunity to talk about how you want to work together, how you’ll communicate and support each other, how you’ll hold each other accountable, etc. Once you level set the whole team and have stated values and/or a culture statement to refer to, it will be easier to prevent these kinds of tough situations.

Bottom line: everyone deserves respect and everyone’s voice is worth hearing.  It’s worth the time and effort to deal with dysfunction.

In the unusual circumstance when a board member is struggling to uphold these basic values, it’s time for them to move on. Call on your integrity to address it and allow them to exit gracefully while honoring their past service.

And remember – board members report to board members.  It is NOT the role of the CEO to manage these types of situations. So when you’re lining up your next board president, be sure they have the skills to manage tricky dynamics or are willing to be coached. This type of board-staff partnership is invaluable.


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