Does Every Board Treat Its Staff This Way?

board bullyI’m really upset.

In just the last two weeks alone, I’ve gotten five different emails from people with basically the same problem.

All of them want to know what to do about board bullying.

One reader wrote that a board member was so disrespectful to one of her staff members that she came to her office in tears.

Another reader (an Executive Director) has his board planning a staff satisfaction survey, which might be fine except this reader has never once been given a performance review (he’s been there over a decade).

Micromanaging is also a form of bullying as well.

Here’s why I’m so upset. I believe that nonprofit organizations are in the business of empowering people, representing the under-represented, curing illnesses, enhancing understanding, offering a voice for the voice-less. Quite often the work is about building awareness and respect for your constituents.

And yet we can’t build that kind of respect within our organizations? Ugh.

It does not have to be like this.

Welcome to my soapbox for the week. What’s the cause? And what can an organization do to make a real change?

HOW DOES BOARD BULLYING COME TO BE?

Lateral Violence

How naïve I was when I arrived in the nonprofit sector. I had never heard this phrase before. People on my staff were often very uncivilized to one another. Then I learned. Violence is a pretty harsh term but what it really means is that the anger and frustration of the work can cause staff and board to focus on each other and not on true adversaries. This was news to me but reading about it was helpful. It can cause people to misbehave very badly.

Abuse of Power

When a person joins a board, you like to think they have come to make a difference. Often board members are big personalities – high powered, leaders in the community, type A folks who are used to being in charge. What that looks like in their day jobs is radically different from what power on a board looks like.

Legitimate Concerns Handled Very Poorly

Please don’t get me started on the number of nonprofit Executive Directors who are not given annual performance reviews. This could be the single biggest factor leading to bullying. Without a process that allows for the board to fairly evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the staff leader, all hell can (and usually does) break loose.

The staff leader feels terribly disrespected and board members with concerns have no appropriate mechanism for sharing these concerns. Under these circumstances, the environment can get toxic very quickly.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF A BOARD BULLY

So what happens when these three elements are at play?

  • Good staff leaders become demoralized. This can actually turn the leader into the poor performer the board assumes.
  • Good staff leaders leave jobs they love. And transitions cause the worst kind of organizational instability.
  • Board members who don’t work on an evaluation process will spend far too much time and energy focused on what is going wrong and far too little time on being champions and ambassadors for what is going right.

FIVE SPECIFIC ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE TODAY TO STOP A BOARD BULLY

1) Evaluate your entire recruitment process. I guarantee you that the roles and responsibilities of board members are not spelled out as clearly as they could or should be.

2) Develop a substantive orientation process for every new board member. The board chair MUST be in attendance and should have clear talking points about what the role is, how you will be supported in your efforts to be a great board member, and what the attributes are of a great board member. What is the protocol for concerns about staff? How are board members expected to behave on this board? Lastly, consider a code of conduct form a new board member is required to sign.

I bet, like me, many board members arrive with little understanding of what can get in the way of five-star board behavior. So talk about it. And the board chair should be clear about the zero tolerance the organization has for abuse of board power.

3) A non-negotiable annual performance review process for the staff leader. I just recently developed, collaboratively with the CEO, the Board Chair and the Vice Chair, just such a tool and process for a client. It is a 360 review process, utilizing simple survey questions to individuals that all three organizational leaders agreed on. As an outside party, we will provide synthesis documents and talking points for the evaluation itself that we are all confident will lead to constructive feedback as well as measurable goals for the coming year that will be incorporated into next year’s assessment. If you don’t have resources for an outside party, it’s ok. Just do it!

And if you do want some help with this, reach out to me.

4) Staff leaders need to step up and not put up with it. Remember that your leadership is shared. Board members, for the reasons identified above, don’t always get that and don’t always behave appropriately when it comes to management and supervision. It happens.

You HAVE to figure out ways to raise the issue and you may not always be the ideal messenger. Is there a board ally you can push to be the voice of reason? Is your board chair a potential part of the solution or part of the problem? If part of the problem, how did s/he get there to begin with — and how did you as a staff leader allow that to happen? If s/he can be potentially part of the solution, there is lots of hope.

And you can come on strong with your board. In fact, I could argue there are times when you absolutely have to. If a board member wreaked havoc with a staff member to the point of tears, I’d get on the phone with the board member and ask my board chair to reach out to that board member as well.

Far too often I see E.D.s slide right into the victim role. They feel powerless to make things better. And what message does that send to the staff? Of course they see it. What they think is, “My boss is not going to advocate for me with bullying board members.” You owe it to yourself, your organization and staff to step up.

5) Change the balance of power with a few new board members. If sanity is not reigning supreme on your board, can staff and board leadership begin a full court press ASAP to bring on a few voices of reason? Maybe you can find 3-4 grownups that have been on grownup boards before who can help guide the board in the right direction? If they come with money or access to it, it will be harder for the board to object if your suggestions are not being embraced.

AND IF YOU CHOOSE TO LEAVE? 

  • Please leave being confident that you have done everything you could have and should have to change the dynamics. You owe that to your organization, your staff and perhaps most importantly, your successor.
  • Learn as much as you can about the board of your next organization. E.D.s often don’t conduct enough due diligence on the potential new board. Especially if your organization is on the smaller side or more local, you should be able to do some background checking. Don’t hesitate to ask about the board, the leadership pipeline, the recruitment process, how the board sees your role in that process and names of folks in the recruitment pipeline. This is a big step missed by many folks looking for new leadership positions.
  • Make as clear-headed and unbiased an assessment of what happened as you possibly can. Make sure you own the role you played and what you might do differently. I tell my CEO clients all the time – The board you have is the board you build. A wise E.D. told me in my first month on the job that I needed to be in the weeds with board recruitment. I didn’t quite get it; I thought I really needed to focus all my efforts on fundraising. She was right. It was first-rate advice. This kind of assessment will make you a better Executive Director.

I was going to suggest that you share your stories about board bullying but I’m thinking it may be difficult to be candid. And if you can, I’m sure it would be of great value to fellow readers – and I will offer my two cents.

And if you really feel stuck, let’s set up a one-on-one session so we can discuss ways you can get unstuck.

Joan Garry
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Joan Garry

Widely known as the "Dear Abby" of nonprofit leadership, Joan works with board and staff as a strategic advisor, crisis manager, change agent and strategic planner. Joan also teaches at the University of Pennsylvania with a focus on nonprofit communications and leadership.
Joan Garry
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Latest posts by Joan Garry (see all)

  • disqus_8QYCGinjC1

    Joan, Thank you for this. I appreciate your posts very much. It’s comforting to know there are others dealing with the same issues. (And your account of being envious of a woman whose job was to fill tiny cups with sauce still cracks me up. I totally get it.)

    I have a unique situation to share. My board is, for the most part, filled with decent people. There are a few bullies and they are all on the Executive Committee (one, apparently a lifetime member of the board–but, that’s another topic). The Executive Committee is the committee that evaluates me (the ED). The full board is not involved, which is a shame because there has been an effort to change the board dynamic (I do have some allies) by bringing in new (reasonable and experienced) people. Unfortunately, these people are too new to have been appointed into leadership positions quite yet.

    It may be years before they see the light of day. Even the quite-dead wood are assumed into the same positions year after year. The Exec Comm has been evaluating me. Ironically, this is the only process they are really on top of, likely fueled by the fact that the bullies can’t wait for the opportunity to stick it to me once a year! (One funny example: there is a question about staff happiness on the survey and my staff tells me nobody ever talks to them.) Past bullying from the board created a dynamic where my predecessor frequently threw them under the bus, so the contrast in how I present the staff and their accomplishments must be very noticeable… I guess that’s what they’ve based it on.

    Last year, the board president was apologetic when delivering the results. I was told several members of the Exec Comm did not even take the survey when he contacted them. (It is typical for people not to respond here.) Therefore, the bullies’ opinions were disproportionately weighted against the reasonable/ apathetic. Scores were mediocre. Some comments were completely contradictory: “We want you to be the face of the organization”, we want you to “Take charge” of said committee (due to someone else not doing their job). Okay. A powerful/ take-charge ED. Give me the authority and resources I need and let’s go! Next comment contradicted this message: “You are to act only at the direction of the committee chairs.” Committee chairs are primarily Executive Committee members. (There were actually some constructive comments in there too, truth be told.) Several of these committees don’t meet–in some cases the chairs are completely non responsive to me (and to the president as stated above). It’s like the non-profit version of “playing house”. They are pretending to lead. I overheard two powerful board members patting themselves on the back for another year in the black. One of them “runs” a committee that hasn’t met in years. I would welcome an opportunity to give credit to hard-working volunteers, but these people are actually hindering the progress. If you’re wondering, we do have by-laws. They are actually well written. They are not enforced. The result is, I have people evaluating me that have no idea what I do or what I am capable of. (And, some just hate me for sport!)

    After a few years of this, I am depleted. There have been some small improvements and there ARE good people who are working towards a solution. But as you can imagine with this dynamic, there’s always a negative response to every new idea and a negative reaction and finger-pointing when that area under performs. It’s so sad, because against all odds, our programs are pretty great, our existence means a great deal to the community in which we operate and I am uniquely qualified for this very specific role (even if only my staff knows it!)

    • There is a lot here. And a lot of things that are not going well. But remember, that regardless of the dysfunction and the problematic power dynamics, that as you say “your programs are pretty great” and your existence is important for the community. Focus on ensuring this continues and it will help you wade through the muck and mire.

  • Thanks Joan, I’m increasingly seeing this too. It’s shocking but fortunately ED’s know they can reach out to coaches and get help.

    Thanks for calling this out. Hopefully more and more people will stand up to this bullying AND get boards better education!

    • Marc. It IS about board education. Board members sign up for service and have such little education about what the role is, what the boundaries are. And organizations often feel ‘desperate’ about adding board members that they don’t recruit for first rate ATTRIBUTES that make for a great board member.

      • I tell nonprofit audiences that we usually lie in bringing on board members. We tell them “It’s not a lot of work. And you’ll have fun.” Neither are necessarily true.

        When leaders, especially unhealthy leaders, see the desperation, it’s no wonder they’ll take advantage of it.

  • Anna James Miller

    I have now left two ED jobs due to bullying. I so appreciate your words reassuring me that when all other avenues are exhausted and the behavior is clearly not going to change, removing ourselves from the toxic situation is the healthiest way to maintain integrity and sanity. Thanks, Joan! I am grateful for this online community and all your words of wisdom.

    • Anna. How sad. Hope you are now or soon in a constructive and supportive environment.

  • Thank you so much, Joan, for sharing your wisdom and experience in regards to board bullying. I am blessed to be in a position where this is not happening (Church of the Holy SpiritSong in Wilton Manors, FL). However, I did just email the link to your article to the board, in hopes that they will implement some of your suggestions. We are functioning very healthily and happily, and we all want it to stay that way.

    • Pastor Leslie. I saw your email and will add some of your ideas to my list of blog ideas. In the meantime let me say simply that you all are doing something right!

      • Thank you, Joan. I wanted to let you know that in response to my email to the board, one of the members suggested that we discuss the ideas at our next leadership dinner and fellowship (held once a month offsite in one of our homes), and that we implement it into our new leader training. Your sharing is helping us build a better board and church. Thank you so much.

  • Steve

    I am a Board member of a small non profit that agreed to a strategic plan. Problem is that a few Board members met separately to implement a plan without any input from the ED. And they want to present to the whole Board for a vote. Doesn’t sit well with me and I plan on speaking with the remaining Board prior to a vote. Can’t imagine any ED wanting to work with this Board. Aside from voting it down, any other suggestions?

    • disqus_8QYCGinjC1

      Steve, as an ED, THANK YOU! It is unreasonable for the ED to not be heavily involved in the planning process. It would signal to me that part of the plan was to get a new ED. Is your ED someone you want to keep around? If so, no, they would not want to work with a board that denied them an opportunity to be part of the positive changes/ decisions for the future. That is one of the rare joys of our job.

      • Steve

        The majority of us want to keep the ED. The ED has brought us additional donors and grants. The Board is not a fundraising Board. The ED has been in non profit for over 20 years yet a few Board members feel they know better and wish to exercise control over the ED and organization.

        • It is not the duration of an ED’s experience in the sector that defines success. Folks with little nonprofit experience can rock it as an ED. The issue you raise here is all in the phrase “feel they know better.” What you look for in board members is not this sense of superiority but rather of offering other skills and attributes that, together with the ED and her experience and tenure, add value to the work of the organization. Hope you get there.

    • Steve. You owe it to your organization to try to build an alliance of folks who stand with you. An army of one on a board with regard to a vote on a strat plan is not enough. Build more power and then take on the FEW who met separately. Sorry I didn’t get to this sooner. Hope this helps.

  • Carrie Kaufman

    Hmm… Demoralized. That was the word I used in an email to the board president of a place I recently left. And that was the word that one of my staff members used when she came into my office, crying, about a week later. She also used the phrase, “being set up to fail,” and the word “gaslight” – which I felt was superior to my “please stop playing mind games with my staff.”

    It was incredibly strange. This is a religious institution. And everything was going well, until the end of the year, then the board president started making things up out of thin air. And a lot of times it was about staff. At first, it knocked me for a loop. When I got used to it, I was able to actually watch her think of something that had no basis in reality, then repeat it to herself, then give it a final mental nod… and suddenly it was a fact.

    The running question in our office (including clergy) wasn’t about god or religion or morality. It was, “Where did THAT come from?”

    What was hard to take was that she had taken this really well working, cohesive staff I had spent a year putting together, told them they were to report directly to her, and commenced to dividing them and playing them off against each other. When I tried to protect my staff, she started gaslighting me – telling me X one day, and then getting angry when I did exactly what she told me to do. It was weird. And, at one point, completely disorienting and demoralizing.

    When my staff member came into my office a week later, telling me how the way she was being treated was making her depressed, and that she was crying all the time, and her boyfriend was the only person keeping her alive, my response was, “What you’re feeling is completely normal for someone working in an abusive environment. What are you going to do to get out?”

    Because truly, the people who worked there was more important to me than the institution. As far as I’m concerned, an institution that is so morally bankrupt shouldn’t exist – especially a religious institution.

    Yes, the board president has a reality problem, and a control problem. But I think she was reacting to the bullying she was getting from some long term board and founding members. This is a place where blame is held more sacred than the supposedly sacred texts.

    A big problem here is that the board is totally divorced from the staff. They get ALL their information from the president, and the past president, who are good friends and work closely together. There’s this attitude that people who have to be staff members at our institution – teachers, secretaries, even executive directors – must not be able to do anything else. If we were smart, we’d be doctors or lawyers – or rich like them in some way. It’s the disdain for the “little people” that is baked into our larger culture that tells people that if you don’t have millions, it’s because you’re lazy. And if you’re lazy, you deserve to be treated horribly.

    Again, these are board members at a religious institution.

    Anyway, I’m out of there. And so is the rest of my staff. Totally new people, except clergy, who have contracts that last a couple more years. Thanks for this. I read it and whooped out loud!

    • Carrie. I think I heard you whooping here in New Jersey. Best of luck in your new gig. Hope readers read through your comments – there are lessons in them. And no, religious organizations are not exempt from bad behavior 🙁

  • PH

    As much as I would like to comment, it just hits too close to home.

    • PH – Nothing more needs to be said other than I’m sorry. Hang in.

  • RS

    This one hit close to home,but thankfully, from my last job as ED of a nonprofit. Bullying was the main reason I started looking for a new job. I ended up finding a great one, yet even though I came out far ahead, board bullying left a scar, as I’m sure it does for everyone who has experienced it. My memories of my time there are certainly tainted by it. The executive board micromanaged finances almost down to the nickel, thought the institution did the underpaid staff a favor by employing them at salaries that could be beaten at any number of entry positions at retail stores, and kept me, the ED, out of crucial decision making. Where the idea comes from that staff is somehow like a servant class that should be grateful for anything and shouldn’t expect raises for years, I do not know, but it does seem to happen at a lot of nonprofits.The board said what a great job I was doing, but never offered a performance review, undercut decisions I made, and made a key decisions on their own. They have high turnover in EDs and can’t figure it out. It is painful to watch a nonprofit that could be so much more suffer because of misdirected governance.

    • Misdirected governance? In some cases, that phrase is too kind. Anyone who does not see the need for an annual performance review for the staff leader does not belong on a board IMHO. Meanwhile, I am thrilled for you that you have a great job where you can make a difference and be appreciated. Your new organization is lucky to have you.

  • Exhausted

    We’re having the opposite issue…

    • Dear Exhausted.
      The staff is treating the board badly???? What does that look like? The staff leader should not tolerate this. And if the staff leader is the person causing the trouble, you have a staff leader problem. ED’s like to think they are completely in charge and hope that the board will steer clear and let them do their jobs. But ED’s report to the board and should be held accountable for their behavior. Would love to hear more here so that my advice is well informed.

  • Roland Bringhurst

    Timely Post,
    My Board President, whom I inherited is a control freak. For three years I have tried many ways to deal with it. Recently (over the last 6 months) I have had a slew of personal problems that I have been dealing with. It has become too exhausting to also deal with the Board President. As a result of her not being pampered by me, she feels that I am no longer fit to be ED.

    In the latest Board Meeting, the President attacked me in front of the rest of the Board. Then two of her friends joined in, it was horrific. She has attended seminars with me on Board ED Relations. I have been sending her and the rest of the Board your posts that I have felt would be of use to them. The last post I sent them, was sent the night before the Board meeting. In the meeting, she blasted out and said, do not ever send me another article about how boards are suppose to be, and I certainly will not sign up for the blog you suggested.

    Another Board Member, proposed a temporary solution to the problem. The rest of the Board was good with the suggestion. I was asked if I could do what was proposed and I stated “YES”. This Board Member then asked the President of the Board and her statement was “I’ll see what he(ED) does.” It has now been a week, and the only communication has been a negative response from her, criticizing that I hadn’t purchased a table for another groups fundraiser. There was never any talk about our Board attending this function, although we did attend last year.

    I love my staff, they do a fantastic job despite a nonfunctional board. The President does not know the name of any of my staff, and when she comes in the facility, staff feel that she hates us all and what we are doing. A week before our big fundraiser, I had an emotional and physical breakdown, admitted my self into the hospital and stayed for a week. My staff see the stress that this is adding to my already stressful life, and am afraid that I will leave. I really believe in what we are doing, I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate the staff. I am deathly afraid of what will become of the staff and clients if I leave. Every single ED before me has left because of her controlling nature. She basically votes herself back in as president every year. She even had the Board amend the Bylaws this year when I pointed out that she had exceeded the number of years that she was allowed to be President of the Board.

    Concerned.

  • betty barcode

    For the purpose of better getting your ideas across, Joan, I suggest “horizontal hostility” in place of “lateral violence.” Violence as a category becomes meaningless when every instance of bad or unethical behavior qualifies.

    • First off, I just LOVE your name. 🙂 Secondly, I had never heard your phrase before now. I like it ALOT better and will use it going forward. THANK YOU!!!

  • Experienced, but not with This

    So, after a 25 year career with a pristine reputation, I have been the victim of board bullying only to learn that the same indivdual board members have been harassing and denegrating our staff for a decade before my arrival. Screaming, yelling, accusing of lying, and not supporting in any way other than financial. Insisting on sexist, exlusionary programs. I even had a board member sabotage an event.

    Despite what are now a decade of complaints from professionals, the organization has taken no action. In fact they have continually elevated and given more authority and power to the bullies. This creates a hostile work environment and I am curious if after what is long established record of abuse, the organization’s failure to address it is grounds for legal action. I feel that a departure for my professional and personal well-being would be damaging to me financially, and has been personally damaging to my health and relationships. Advice?

    • I don’t know how i missed this comment – I’m so sorry. I don’t know if you have grounds for legal action – I’m not an attorney. My gut says that because board members are volunteers, they may not qualify as formal supervisors and thus may be off the hook. I am so sorry for your organization and for the folks you serve.

  • Hit Home

    I am a young nonprofit professional and serve as the ED of a statewide, multi-faceted organization to which I’m the only staff member. This article hit home with me. I love nonprofit organizations and devoted my undergraduate and graduate career to being the best nonprofit employee I could be but recently had a very similar experience with my chair. The comments I receive from my board are demoralizing and demeaning but hearing this information and advice from you has empowered me to take a stand and work to improve this situation or make sure I don’t encounter the same in the future. Thank you for your incredibly helpful advice! I truly appreciate it.

    • I so wish this article did not “hit home for you.” hang in there!

  • Demoralized

    Thank you. As an ED going through difficult times with a board who wants to manage and not govern, it is heartening to know that I am not alone and that I have a right to speak up

  • Brooke Battle

    When I worked at a nonprofit, I used the saying — ‘the board is like a train and we (staff) are the engine – if we aren’t in front pulling the train it will run over us.” As ED, I found that if I focused on anticipating questions, being out front on our issues then it didn’t open up the questions — we just always worked to stay in front of the train. Being ED was the best training I ever had to be a good board member.