Association boards are made up of volunteers who are donating their time to the organization, so dealing with a problematic president, churlish chair or disagreeable director can be tricky. Unlike employees, they can’t just be taken off the payroll – they aren’t on it.
One place to start is by focusing on the positive aspects of our relationship with these disruptive folks – the way they have forced us to develop the skills that make us more effective association executives. Here are a few disruptors you’ve most certainly met. We’ve assigned each prototype a gender, but they come in all sizes, shapes and sexes.
This individual goes beyond seeing the glass as half-empty. He’s complaining about the quality of the beverage inside. As an association officer or board member, he focuses on what’s broken about the organization and how to fix it, instead of what’s right with it and how to make it better. His attitude has a demoralizing effect on the team and causes a breakdown in trust.
What he teaches us: optimism, what else? Maybe it’s just the contrarian in us, but all that complaining sends us scrambling for the nearest window with a view of the bright side. Every complaint gives us an opening to point out, to Curmudgeon and everyone else, how far the association has come and how much it’s achieved.
She withdraws from anything resembling conflict, and anything with the potential for conflict. Heaven help the association that has this person as its president. Under her leadership, major issues will go unresolved until they become full-blown crises.
What she teaches us: perspective. You’d think someone who hates conflict so much would be a natural peacemaker, but Turtle doesn’t want to get close enough to a conflict to help resolve it. So that becomes our job. Not only do we polish our peacemaking skills, but in our efforts to convince Turtle that conflict isn’t the end of the world, we improve our own outlook on dealing with disagreements.
This person comes in two varieties. No. 1 doesn’t understand that the board’s job is to make the big decisions; he questions and second-guesses all the small ones we make in the day-to-day operation of the association. No. 2 has a better understanding of his big-picture role but obsesses over the details of every decision. He tries so hard to make the right choice that he often ends up making the wrong one – or none.
What he teaches us: patience. If you have raised children, you’ve probably felt – if not given into – the urge to shut down an endless stream of “Why?” with “Because I said so!” Unfortunately, our fellow adults don’t take kindly to that approach. We’ve had to learn new ways to respond to the “Why?” guy (or gal) and in the process, build up our reserves of patience. It’s also another opportunity to communicate how far the association has come – what decisions have been made to date, and where we are now.
Not all schoolyard terrors outgrow their name-calling, lunch-money-extorting, wedgie-giving ways after middle school. OK, most of them do give up the wedgies and the extortion, but the grown-up bully can still hurl insults with the worst of them. Even if she doesn’t demand that the association bend to her will, it often happens because nobody wants to be her target.
What she teaches us: diplomacy. Dealing with a bully forces us to learn how to stand firm without rising to her bait, to address her concerns without taking her abuse. Now, if only we’d developed this skill back in middle school …
This person has a lot in common with the bully, but he’s a lot subtler. His mantra is “It’s all about me!” and every decision he makes is based on whether he can benefit from it. He works behind the scenes and under the radar to get his way and put “his” people in power. Unlike the bully’s victims, who know they’re under attack, those in the diva’s sights may not know what hit them until it’s too late.
What she teaches us: perception. At some point in your life, you have probably been knocked for a loop by an encounter with a manipulative, self-serving person. Dealing with a diva in our association work, we’ve learned to recognize these folks in all walks of life and hone our responses to them. Like the bully, he has also helped us to sharpen our diplomatic skills.
This article by Abigail Harmon of the nonprofit development consulting firm Mersky, Jaffe & Associates has some sound advice for dealing with disruptive board members. If drastic action is required – such as removing the member from service – be sure you are acting in accordance with your association’s bylaws. If they don’t address such an issue, perhaps it’s time they did. ADG’s association experts are here to help you through that process if you need it. Call us anytime!