Happy Land! Confronting the Contentious Board Member

 In Smith & Dale Blog

Let’s be honest. It’s likely we’ve all sat on a board with, or had to work in an organization with, that one contentious board member ~ the Ruler of the Realm of the Perpetually Displeased.  And if you’re lucky it’s only one!  Fun for everyone, right?!

We don’t know about you, but when we volunteer our time, we want it to be predominately positive, and even dare we say ~ fun!  While it can be imperative to express dissent when you feel strongly about a decision, civility is always required.  In fact, healthy discussion and debate is necessary for a healthy board culture. But constant negativity or hostility? Nope.

If this is happening, it is most likely impacting the leadership and cohesion of the organization. It is important for the Board Chair, in concert with the Executive Director and the Governance Committee if necessary, to deal with disruptive members.

First course of action: determine if the behavior is a result of substantive concerns.  If yes, then deal with the situation and the board member should feel appeased.  Remember sometimes, the one voice of dissention is actually right. 

If there isn’t a substantive issue, and this is a pattern of behavior, then you may be dealing with a bully, a negative individual set on wreaking havoc.

If the board member is consistently negative no matter what – it is time for the chair to have a heart-felt discussion.  Ask questions like:

              1) What could we do to make your board term more positive?

              2) Can we work together to create a positive work environment for the rest of the board?

              3) Your leadership is really important and I’m wondering how we can create a more constructive         way of communicating?

If you can’t rein them in, you risk alienating the good board members.  Are you willing to let one board member sabotage the work of the others?  Do you want your board members to dread board meetings?  If you don’t deal with the offending member it can tank your board and your organization very quickly.

All boards – like families – have a certain amount of dysfunction. BUT having a board member who continually ‘stirs the pot’ makes good board work and positive outcomes a struggle, and not fun. Many board members wonder whether to sit on their hands waiting for term limits to save the day, or just resign to avoid the issue entirely.

For any nonprofit board, best practice and the first line of defense includes having specific language regarding board member removal in the bylaws. Following the bylaws helps reduce any potential legal issues that might arise from improper removal. If the organization has an attorney pro-bono or on retainer (which it should!), have them review the issue first to ensure that policies and procedures are followed. For example, some organization’s bylaws state that a board member must first be notified in writing and include a request to resign or be removed. Simply holding a secret vote and having the board chair fire a board member can create more problems and not provide the intended result.

Differing opinions are part of what make any organization great. And, while it’s not necessary for all board members to agree on everything, the overall mission of the organization should be the focus for every board and staff member. When director removal is considered, having good policies and procedures from the start can help eliminate many of the follow up SANFUs that add to an already negatively charged situation.

Finally, good board governance includes giving great consideration to board composition and diversity. Do your board members have the necessary skill sets to achieve your mission?  We’ll tackle that question in our follow up blog…

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