Standing Beside Alaska's Non-Profits

Board Bullies

There are seasons for tornados and hurricanes – that’s why those disasters come in clusters. Recently geologists report that even earthquakes come in clusters. And it seems this past month we experienced another disastrous cluster, board bullying. In February 2012, our office received six calls from nonprofits in crisis over the behavior of one member who was described as a “bully.”

School and cyber bullies are in the news almost every day. As we have learned, their impact can be disastrous. We have initiatives to educate youth on ways to confront those bullies. We would suggest that the impact from board bullies is no less harmful – and it’s time we confront this issue.

Even if there is no formal definition for a board bully, the behavior is apparent. When a director threatens, intimidates, and controls someone, it is bullying. Some bullies use rules to control discussion. Others completely ignore rules and disrupt discussion. They almost always try to use their position to justify their behavior. They will even believe that they know best and are only trying to rectify a problem. Bullies are aggressive, immature, and find any way they can to manipulate others, and even if they are right, bullying is not appropriate.

In most cases bullies have an agenda. They want it their way or no way. Many seem to revel in their “rogue” behavior. Unfortunately, when I have mentioned board bullies to nonprofit executives and directors, most immediately have a story, or two, or three, or more to share.

Why is this behavior so common? I have observed that directors choose not to confront bullies. Like kids on a playground, if we’re not directly affected by the behavior, we avoid confrontation. We may even inadvertently enable the bully in a lame attempt to persuade the person to “like” us and leave us alone.

So let’s clarify what is not a board bully. A dissonant that follows the rules, asks questions, and states an opinion is not a bully. Civil dissent is actually an indicator of a high performing board. Asking questions, challenging assumptions, voting based on one’s best judgment – even if a vote is against the consensus – is what we should expect and even require from directors as long as they are acting in what they think is in the interest of the nonprofit.

Too often Robert’s Rules are used as a tool to bully. When one member disrupts meaningful discussion with a parliamentary challenge claiming the board is not in strict compliance with the rules – even if most directors concur that they are having a civil discussion – that member could be using the rules to bully. A civil discussion is when everyone can be heard and no individual dominates – that is the intent of Robert’s Rules. The presiding officer can, according to Robert, modify most of the rules as long as the board agrees with those changes. We should never use those rules to limit meaningful discussions.

Here are a few of the stories we’ve heard about bullies:

  • One chair reported that the behavior of one individual on her board who disagreed with the board’s direction was so disruptive and created so much rancor that some of the other directors resigned rather than serve in so much turmoil. How many of our nonprofits have a surplus of directors to lose?
  • A nonprofit executive described how a director, who had recently lost a job, put his energy into micro-managing the organization and used aggressive tactics to intimidate other directors and senior staff so he could get what he wanted. As it turned out, that director wanted the ED’s job and almost got what he wanted. How many nonprofits want to lose a good staff member?
  • Another organization reported how one director had a relationship with a significant funding source and threatened that funding whenever the board made a decision with which she disagreed. What most boards may not realize is that in today’s funding environment, rarely does one individual have enough influence to restrict such funding.
  • And an emerging bullying tactic is the use of email. Cyber-bullies seem out of control among young people. However, we’re seeing them, too, in nonprofits when a director inappropriately tries to stir discontent or spread rumors through email to other directors or even constituents. We are too busy to read or respond to frivolous communication.

One of my mentors told me that “directors do not serve on a board to deal with controversy, they serve to do good.” Confrontation is uncomfortable, so unfortunately too many directors tolerate another’s bad behavior. In addition to a board losing its enthusiasm because of a bully, the biggest consequence may be the loss of staff enthusiasm, or even resignations. I suggest that when board members allow a director to bully, they are creating a hostile work environment for their employees and each other.

Life is too short, and our work is too important to allow the actions of one bad seed to disrupt our collective good intentions. I urge all directors on boards in Alaska to listen to my plea – DO SOMETHING! Don’t tolerate bullies.

I know – that’s easier said than done. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Ensure that every member of the board receives training every two years. Board training, especially basic roles and responsibilities, not only reminds good directors to become even better it may influence directors with less than stellar behavior – but good intentions – to behave. Most important, it may empower the good directors to confront the bad behavior of a bully and either change the dynamics, or ask the bully to leave.
  • Engage in active board development. Establish a committee whose purpose is the constant improvement of the body’s performance. Good board behavior is not a destination as much as a journey. The steps to good board performance are:
    • Recruit the right members. Good directors are passionate about the mission. They understand that while they are expected to have an opinion, they are expected to work with the group. Individuals who do not like process – who are only happy when they get their way – are rarely effective directors. In Good to Great, Jim Collins talks about getting the “right people on the bus.” He suggests that employers be slow to hire but quick to fire when a hiring decision was a mistake. In selecting directors, we suggest that boards should be slow to nominate new directors. And when it is apparent that a new director is not appropriate, have a swift process to address the problem, including removal. Toxic employees or directors can do more damage than many organizations can tolerate.
    • Prepare a written job description for the directors and urge compliance with your norms by requiring that every member sign it, every year.
    • Conduct frequent board evaluations.
  • If necessary, establish policies on electronic communications between directors. Make sure that those with strong opinions have adequate time during regular meetings to state their case and don’t allow directors to use email for personal agendas.
  • Develop a Code of Ethics (or Conduct). Make sure the code addresses bullying. But more important than a written code, have periodic conversations about ethical, civil behavior. Create a cultural norm of civil discourse and dissent.
  • Since most nonprofits state in their bylaws they will adhere to Roberts Rules, know the rules and make sure that the principles are followed. That does not mean that boards should strongly, rigidly adhere to the rules. Most boards now follow what is referred to as “modified Robert.” That norm follows these steps:
    • Call to Order
    • Approve and follow the agenda
    • When in discussion mode, make sure everyone has their say and that no individual says too much.
    • When a motion is made, secure a second, and then allow discussion on the motion. Develop consensus and/or vote on the motion after it is restated by the presiding officer (chair, president).
    • Call for a motion to adjourn.

When a board needs a parliamentarian to conduct its business, it has limited its effectiveness. The primary responsibility of a director is to make decisions in the best interest of the organization, after reasonable inquiry. That outcome is best achieved when directors can discuss freely, listen to each other and their advisors, and then decide what to do.

In closing, the only way to deal with bullies is to not tolerate their behavior. While we can have empathy for anyone with challenges, and research shows that most bullies are coping with significant personal trauma, we cannot let their behavior become traumatic for others. Bullies need our help and that help starts with confronting their destructive behavior.