What is a challenging board member? How do they compare to a difficult staff person? Some of the characteristics are probably pretty similar, right? Here are some of the most common complaints I hear about how board members frustrate agency leadership:
- They don’t do what they said they would do or what they are supposed to do
- They say one thing and then do another
- They drop the ball
- They don’t show up when expected
- They fail to communicate effectively
- They stir up conflict with other board members
- They harbor hidden agendas
- They dominate conversations and shut down other view points
Anyone who supervises staff can probably relate to one or more (or all) of these scenarios. In my continued comparison of leading staff and leading boards, today’s article is focused on how to deal with difficult volunteers.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense
Before we delve into how to address performance issues, let’s talk about some prevention strategies. By putting systems in place, you can often stop problems before they occur.
I often say that all business is people-business, and even more so when it comes to the nonprofit sector. Everything we do, from the people we serve, to the problems we solve, to the donors and shareholders who support our work – it all boils down to relationships. And you cannot have healthy relationships without clear and consistent communication.
When it comes to leading board members (and staff), clear communication and healthy relationships are just the beginning. Afterall, volunteers are there for a reason! Establishing agreed upon expectations and consistently holding people accountable will create the foundation needed to drive the work of your board and your organization forward. It also gives clarity to board members who might not really know what is needed from them.
It’s Not You, It’s Your Behavior
As with any performance issue – staff or volunteer – it’s important to focus on the behaviors. By valuing the individual and working with them to change counterproductive behaviors, you can avoid hurting feelings and often strengthen valuable relationships. Generally speaking, people are associated with your organization because they care about the cause, and making our world a better place. Sometimes they need help understanding what is helpful and what is not.
Wouldn’t it be great if by putting expectations and communications systems into place, you were guaranteed smooth sailing? Since we are all human with different life experiences, ideas, passions, and priorities – it’s not always that simple. Sooner or later reality sets in and behaviors emerge that make it difficult to move the work of organization forward.
When (not if) that happens, I recommend following a process very similar to how we address performance issues with staff. Ideally this process is led by the Board Chair. If that position is not developed to the point of being able to address performance issues, this may fall on the shoulders of the Executive Director. In that case, another volunteer should be present during the conversation, representing the governance leadership.
Addressing Board (or staff) Issues
- Don’t delay – create a plan to address the problem as soon as it becomes apparent
- Define the problem clearly – “Here’s what I perceive is happening”
- Identify the effect of the problem – “When you do ______________ , the impact is ______________”
- Listen to the response – “Tell me your thoughts”
- Avoid getting sucked into a debate or argument
- Listen to understand; reflect what you’re hearing or sensing
- Re-examine expectations – “Our agency’s success requires board members to ______________”
- Describe the specific corrective action – “Here’s what needs to be done differently”
- Determine if issues exist that limit the volunteer’s ability to change the behavior – “What challenges remain that we need to address?”
- Seek feedback – “I want to be sure we’ve communicated effectively, let’s summarize the changes we’ve agreed on”
- Create mutual agreement for implementation – “How will the change be accomplished?”
- Identify measurement and follow-up – “How will we know we’re being successful?”
- Summarize the agreement
- State the consequences of their not making agreed-upon changes – this is not a threat!
- It’s stating what the organization needs from its governance volunteers
- End positively – “When I do ______________ and you do ______________ , I’m sure we’ll be successful”
- Document – since volunteers transition through roles, future leaders need to know about any issues that have been addressed
I often help organizations to put foundational processes in place and to establish a strong offense against board performance issues. Email me at Kim@Athena-CoCo.com, or schedule a Discovery Call to discuss creating a Board of Superheroes that will drive your organization’s success!
Kim is a mom, lover of being active and the outdoors,
and helper of nonprofit leaders.