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There are difficult, but manageable, board members who create tension at meetings but generally don’t derail the work of the board altogether. They make meetings unpleasant.

They fall into various behavior categories:

  • Overbearing (loudest voice in the room wins)
  • Conspiracy theorists (stirring suspicion of malfeasance when there is none)
  • Contrarians (if everyone votes “yes,” they vote “no”)
  • Agenda-ists (have a personal agenda they wear on their sleeve)
  • Bone-to-pickers (got elected just to fix one thing they don’t like)
  • Second-guessers (who resurrect and try to change decisions the board has already made), and the list goes on.

Board meetings can generally be productive in spite of them, though may occasionally get derailed. There are ways for a board to manage their behavior, which we’ll discuss later in this article.

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“Regardless of which approach you take as a board to mitigate their behavior, it’s unlikely they’ll ever “play nice” and become a better board member. Recognizing that truth is the first step in solving the problem.”

Jeff Arnold

President, Leading Associations

The Trouble Maker

Then there is another type of board member, which, as they say about the definition of pornography, is difficult to describe precisely, but you know it when you see it. Boards might describe such individuals as destructive, abusive, toxic and/or divisive, or less charitably – evil incarnate. The commonality among them is pathological board behavior. They seem to be driven to disrupt for the sake of disrupting. To give a nod to the Mel Brooks movie Young Frankenstein, we’ll name them “Abby Normal.”

Regardless of how Abby Normal behaves in their non-board life, something about serving on an elected board brings out aberrant behavior.  At any given time they may appear as any one of the types described above – or even all of them simultaneously. The Abby Normal archetype uses any tool in the toolbox of unpleasant behavior that suits them to keep the board permanently spiraling.

First the truth about Abby. Abby won’t change.

Ultimately, the only way to fix the “Abby Problem,” if you truly have the pathological type, is for Abby to go. That said, one of the peculiar features of nonprofit law is how difficult it is to “fire” board members. Statute and organizational bylaws frequently tie a board’s hands in terms of how and if a board member can be removed.

Nevertheless, the ideal outcome a board MUST attempt to bring about is that Abby go, either by resignation or removal.  Abby leaving by choice (albeit under heavy pressure) is the softest path. If Abby won’t go by choice, the board may have a bylaws provision or procedure that allows it to either remove or at least not re-appoint Abby. You may need to have a nonprofit attorney review your options, as state laws vary.

If removal is not an option, the board is left with learning to operate as best it can until Abby is finally term-limited off. In this case, the next best strategy to pursue is containment, which we’ll describe in more detail later.

Identifying Disruptive Board Members

To identify whether you have Abby on your board, start with the question: “how much of a problem is this?” Then engage in two levels of inquiry, as follows:

Level 1 Inquiries:

  • Is this individual’s behavior so divisive, abusive, overbearing or distracting that it’s impeding the board’s ability to do its work?
  • Are other board members quitting or threatening to quit because they “can’t take it anymore”?
  • Are large portions of board meetings spent doing damage control from Abby’s behavior?
  • Do board members behave in a reactive mode, either trying to defend against Abby’s attacks or to preemptively attack the attacker?
  • Is the tension level at board meetings so high that members dread or even stop attending?

A “yes” answer to any of the diagnostic questions above points to a destructive individual who is not acting in the interest of the board or the organization, and your path is clear – if you can, get rid of Abby.

If your answers are “no” to the Level 1 inquiries above, here are some secondary inquiries:

Level 2 Inquiries:

  • Is the behavior difficult and distracting but not necessarily destructive?
  • While board members don’t enjoy being around this individual, can they tolerate them?
  • Is the board able to be effective and get things done in spite of the individual’s behavior?

If you answer “yes” to any of the Level 2 questions, you probably don’t have Abby on your board, just a challenging personality. If an individual is somewhat distracting and often difficult, but not necessarily destructive and divisive, then containment, not removal or resignation, should be the primary aim of the board. Containment simply means finding ways to contain their behavior so that it is only minimally disruptive, if at all.

“The final key board strategy is prevention, which every board should pursue regardless of whether it has difficult individuals. Prevention means adopting processes and building a culture that prevents these types of individuals from getting on the board in the first place.”

Jeff Arnold

President, Leading Associations

Direct Intervention

Begin with direct intervention. Address their behavior directly, via a one-on-one meeting with the board chair or someone else that the person holds in high esteem and would listen to. Explain that their voice is important, but that the message is getting lost due to the way it’s being delivered. Suggest a better approach that could be more effective.

If an individual appeal doesn’t produce results, step it up to a group intervention. Have the board as a whole address their concerns with the individual’s behavior – similar to a family performing an addiction intervention.

The board chair might also use procedural means to mitigate their behavior. For example, if it is someone who tends to dominate discussions, establish rules of debate. Give one side two minutes to state their case, then two minutes to the opposing view. Use a timer. Cut off the discussion when the time is up.

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Prevention Processes to Avoid Divisive Board Members

The final key board strategy is prevention, which every board should pursue regardless of whether it has difficult individuals.  Prevention means adopting processes and building a culture that prevents these types of individuals from getting on the board in the first place. These include:

  • Tighten up your nominating process to include a formal application, interviews, a selection grid that identifies key attributes being sought, and clearly communicated criteria around the ideal attitudes, skillsets and mindsets the board is seeking.
  • Adopt written group norms of behavior. Hold each other accountable when the norms aren’t followed.
  • Establish written expectations of board members. Discuss them with candidates during the nominations process, include them in your board orientation, and remind board members of them as necessary.
  • Use rules of debate to control the conversation and assure opposing views are heard.

The most effective answer to the question: “What do we do with Abby Normal?” is not to have to ask it in the first place. In reality, the three strategies – prevention, containment and removal – should be pursued in that order. Try to prevent first, then contain if you can’t prevent, and only remove if you can’t contain.

Would your Board benefit from a fresh perspective to get your team back on track? Leading Associations has helped hundreds of Boards work through challenges and we can help yours, too!  Contact us today.

About the Author

Jeff Arnold, MAM, CAE, is CEO of Leading Associations which supports professional associations by bringing a full spectrum of board, management and operational solutions that help them work through challenges that inhibit progress, and grow membership.

Jeff brings a combination of association experience and formal education to Leading Associations’ clients. His present responsibilities include dealing with both the strategic and tactical aspects of running associations. His special areas of expertise include working with boards and committees, certification, training programs, and membership systems. You can reach Jeff on LinkedIn or via email.