If you’ve worked with volunteer boards long enough, either as a professional or as a volunteer, you have certainly had to deal with this on some level — the bully board member. Hindsight is 20/20, so how could you have avoided ending up with this person on your board? And once they’re there, how do you deal with them?
Here are 5 quick ideas for dealing with your bully board member:
1. Improve your recruitment and orientation process
The first step is to ensure you have a decent process in place to vet potential members before they are asked to run for the board. Good board members should be strategic thinkers rather than tactical doers, focused more on the long term success of the organization than on the day-to-day activities of committees and staff. A mistake often made is assuming that because a volunteer was a good committee chair or committee member, they will make a good board member. These are in fact distinctly different skill sets, and while some can make the transition, board members who are frustrated by no longer being in the tactical trenches tend to resort to bringing the tactical to the board.
Unfortunately, even the best screening processes can’t guarantee that only the right people get the votes needed. Don’t underestimate the value of a good orientation program that clearly addresses the duties of a board and limitations of individual authority, expectations for meetings, and proper interaction with fellow directors, members and staff.
2. Board chair training
Beyond overall board orientation, ensure your board chair has been properly trained for their position. Don’t assume he or she truly understands the responsibilities of their position simply because they’ve witnessed those before them.
One of the more under anticipated roles of a new board chair is his/her responsibility for managing the egos and agendas around the table. There should be a zero tolerance for misuse of director authority or influence, and while a good executive can coach and advise, the responsibility for minimizing destructive board member behavior falls squarely on the shoulders of the board chair.
3. Board and staff accountability for managing negative behavior
Unfortunately, there are times when the board chair is either unable or unwilling to address the bully at the table. Despite orientation and training, for some this is their first real experience as a board member so they don’t know what their behavior looks like in reality. If you catch negative behavior early, and on the assumption the behavior is not truly vindictive, try to encourage some coaching.
By the book, that conversation should happen via the board chair or a peer director. However, in reality, sometimes the executive can be more effective out of sheer experience. In the case of the latter, it is still recommended that the chair or a peer director be included in the dialogue.
4. Pick your battles
It is important to recognize and appreciate the relative severity and real impact of the situation at hand. Is the behavior of the director illegal? Is the behavior legal, but unethical? Is the behavior reflecting poorly on the organization? Is the behavior negatively impacting staff performance? Or is the behavior merely annoying? Is the behavior a recurring problem or a first time surprise?
While any of these scenarios are likely to eat up more of your time than they should, the answers to these questions will clearly influence the appropriate response. Think carefully about the situation and ensure you are reacting accordingly.
5. Realize the opportunity to take action
Once the decision is made that action needs to be taken, don’t waiver. Unfortunately there are those, despite coaching and even corrective action, who are destructive to an otherwise effective board. Know your organization’s weaknesses and blind spots and don’t underestimate the potential intelligence and calculating nature of a true bully. If you have the opportunity to take clear and decisive action, don’t regret later not having done so.
Rally support from other board members, creating a healthy alliance. Recognize the limits of authority within your bylaws, noting that while some bylaws or state law may limit the ability of a board to remove a fellow board member, most do not limit the authority of a board to remove someone from office. Get the rest of the board on the same page and make a united decision, recognizing that true authority rests in the hands of the board as a body, and not in the hands of any one individual.
Bully board members erode the confidence and productivity of a board and staff alike. Do what you can to minimize the chances of the wrong person getting on your board in the first place. But when they do – and they do – remember where the control truly lays and take quick, appropriate and decisive action right away.