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Bully on Board: Dealing with Board Members who Belittle, Berate and Break Non-Profit Organizations

There's a lot of talk going on about bullying today, and while we tend to think of the schoolyard bully demanding lunch money or endlessly harassing victims, the truth is that bullying extends far past the schoolyards and adolescent years. Sometimes young bullies (and even those without bullying history) become adult bullies, and even worse, sometimes these bullies end up in positions that allow them to pose a significant threat not just to the morale and cohesion of a non-profit organization, but to threaten the very organization itself. But we don't have to take the bullying, and neither do you. Here are some tips to stop and disarm the boardmember bully.

To be fair, no one starts off with the intention of being a bully. After all, It’s tough to find good help these days isn't it? From the rude barista to the indifferent bus driver that casually cut you off this morning on your way to work, it’s easy to empathize with the constant woes of hiring and training the right staff. It can be difficult to find employees that fall under the umbrella of both competent and conscientious, and as a Nonprofit Executive Management member, this challenge is especially daunting in a world of tight budgets and growing demand. But what happens when we take that desire for efficacy a little too far and, in our quest to become better, turn into Board Bullies?

Here’s how to spot a board bully -- and what you can do about it:

1. Struggles with Group Discussions

Problem: The board bully likes to run the show, which can make it difficult for the board bully to tolerate group discussions. A productive discussion should include opinions from anyone on the board with applicable feedback about the topic at hand. Unfortunately, a board bully will often monopolize the conversation or cut it short.

Solution: Set up ground rules for discussions so that no one can claim to be confused about conversation limitations. For example, designate the amount of time each person will have to contribute to the discussion and clearly state that the board chair (or a designated conversation leader) will move the conversation along and call on different board members to speak. Stating rules ahead of time removes permission for one board member to dominate the conversation, as these rules can be readdressed during the conversation.

2. Has Done it All Before

Problem: Some board bullies have a lot of experience serving on your board or others in town. As a result, the bully may begin conversations with, “I have seen this problem countless times before and…”

Solution: Take the time to consider whether or not that board member really does have experience that is under-utilized. If so, find a way to capitalize on that experience, such as assigning the board member to be in charge of a committee. But don’t allow the “I’ve done it all before” attitude to interfere with progress. At the beginning of every board meeting, remind board members that the purpose of the board is to hear from multiple members and make decisions as a group. Period.

3.  Thrives on Drama

Problem: One bad apple can ruin the bunch. It won’t take long for a board bully who thrives on drama to stir up trouble and create a contingent of dissatisfied members.

Solution: Nip the problem in the bud the moment you spot it. If you have a dissatisfied board member, set up a meeting with the bully and the board chair or executive director to address grievances. Determine whether or not these are issues that can be resolved. If they cannot be resolved, the board chair or ED should be honest about the limitations of the board and offer the board member an opportunity to move on. Sometimes, this situation will require the board chair or executive director to set a follow-up meeting with the board bully.

4. Ignores Democracy

Problem: The board bully believes it should be his/her way or the highway. The bully wants to implement ideas without bringing them to a vote and is quick to bully anyone who suggests otherwise.

Solution: Educate your board. Set standards for best practices, including how often issues will be brought to a vote and the method to do so. Place those guidelines in the agenda to review at the beginning of each meeting and cite the guidelines when necessary.

5. Openly Belittles

Problem: This bully is quick to put down others on the board or within the organization. This person openly belittles ideas and suggestions and creates a vibe of discontent amongst the board. Much like the board member who thrives on drama, this bully must be reigned in.

Solution: Set best practice standards so your members know what is expected of them when they serve on the board. That way, the board chair or executive director will have specific guidelines to reference when addressing the behavior of the bully. Make it clear that putdowns and belittling will not be tolerated and get a signed or verbal commitment from the board member that the behavior will stop. If it does not, it’s time to ask the bully to volunteer their time elsewhere. Remember, it may seem awkward or difficult to take the steps to reign in a bully, but it’s a necessary step. Not only does a bully have the power to wreak havoc on the productivity of your board, a negative environment can have the power to discourage positive board members. Don’t give a bully power over your board! Set clear standards for respect and positivity and insist your board members uphold them.

6. Undermines the Staff

Problem: The board is an oversight organization, created to ensure governance and set a strategic plan in motion. It's up to the staff to effectively execute it in their own methods. The board should never be a micro-manager. But the board bully openly questions the process, micro-manages the details, and doesn't trust their own staff to effectively do their job.

Solution: The rest of the board members need to take quick action against this particular kind of bully before this practice gets out of hand. As an employee, you should do your best to convey your discomfort with this arrangement. A board contract is usually the quickest and easiest way to reign this bully in and to discuss points of responsibility, but the board should be prepared to escalate though and discuss disciplinary measures if this behavior doesn't stop. Undermining staff can create a difficult work situation for your staff, and the board needs to take measures to ensure that lines of communication and accountability are clear before staff start abandoning your organization.

7. Uses Procedures As a Weapon

Problem: This board bully lives to make things difficult. If they have an issue with a vote, they'll object based on any perceived procedural misstep. They use Robert's Rules as a way to hinder and slow the process, using inefficient and often unnecessary procedures to try and get their way.

Solution: Tread lightly with this bully, but call on the expertise of your counsel on how this person can be satisfied and stick to the guidelines given to you. If things get especially acrimonious, bring your counsel to meetings to act as a referee. Make it clear that board meetings are a collaborative process, and while disagreements can happen, they need to be handled with mutual respect for everyone involved. Ultimately, Boardmembers who actively disrupt the boards ability to govern should be asked to leave.

Need help with your Board? A strategic planning session or retreat might be just the right step. Contact us to learn more about our Board assessment and retreat sessions.

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