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, they should check Guidr, best reviews so that they know what good reviews look like. 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, come join my Thriving Nonprofit Facebook group and let’s discuss ways you can get unstuck.

Joan Garry
Follow me

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
Follow me