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A Better Way to Avoid Personality Problems on Your Board

If you missed last week’s blog post about common personality types that get in the way of nonprofit progress, you can check it out here. In a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, I described eight seriously disruptive that you might pinpoint sources of friction within your board.


Here’s the good news: many of you probably read the list, had a chuckle, recognized a person or two, and decided those folks weren’t so bad after all.


Here’s the not-so-good news: a fair amount of you read descriptions that match many of your board members to a T - and realized that you may have a serious problem on your hands.


If you fall into the latter category, fear not. There are strategies that can help.


Because my life and work often involve fair amounts of trial and error, I've learned a lot about what not to do. Which is where we'll begin when thinking about how to effectively handle personality issues on the board. 


If you find that there are difficult personalities on your board, toxic types on your staff, or otherwise undesirable behaviors happening in your nonprofit, your expectation may be that the perpetrators need to change their behavior. 


But here's a newsflash: we can’t change people. They can only change themselves. 


Try as we might, it is unreasonable to believe that we can do anything to address the deep insecurities that cause Bulldozers to overpower the group or to quell the fears that cause Micromanagers to be all up in your grill. These traits are years in the making and they are, frankly, not our business.


That’s their own stuff. You are (probably) not a therapist. 


Deep down, we all know this. But, also deep down, we all still want to try to change people.  We coerce, incentivize, shame, or complain to others in order to get bad actors to stop being a nuisance. We take it on as a challenge to find ways to effectively manage the “difficult people” or to win in a battle of wills.


But expecting that others will change is a trap. Focusing on changing the bad behavior or undesirable personality traits makes the conflict personal and causes us to waste valuable time and energy that would be better spent on trying to accomplish the mission.


In this way, friction develops between people instead of where it actually is: between the group and its ability to accomplish the goals/mission.


For instance, when the Icon seeks out the executive director or board president after a meeting and tries to exert her influence by giving opinions and suggestions after the fact, it undermines the board's processes for governance. Applying pressure behind the scenes allows this person with inherent power - from long-standing service or professional esteem - to bypass scrutiny or examination by the group.  This devalues the input of the other board members and can cause, among other things, confusion and animosity when decisions are made that haven't been vetted or discussed. 


Here are some alternative ways to think about managing the disruptive personalities on your board:

  1. Accept that you cannot change people. Letting go of this idea will prevent you from feeling frustrated when you fail to actually change the person. You’ll no longer have to spend time and energy figuring out how to get them to stop being themselves. And, hopefully, you can also let go of complaining about them and their perceived shortcomings. Complaining, despite feeling good, only makes things worse.  
  2. Go back to the basics. What types of process- or procedure-related steps could be taken to discourage bad behavior? Consider the narcissist who taps away on their computer or phone during the meeting. Are there rules that describe the expectations for members during board meetings? Codes of conduct? Board orientation/training? Addressing the issue as a matter of business function makes it less personal. It’s not about the narcissist's rudeness and inattention, it’s about how all members of the group agree to conduct themselves in order to make the most of their time together. Generally, the most effective thing to do is to clearly and kindly ask for compliance. However, because we know that group dynamics and interpersonal relationships are highly nuanced, frank discussions are not always possible or welcomed. So, going back to the bylaws, policies, procedures, and orientation helps you address problems without making others feel personally targeted or put "on the spot". And, for particularly troublesome people, these basic governing documents will be an important source of recourse. 
  3. Enlist the help of your great board partners. They will be able to model good behavior and compliance with the rules. They'll also be able to correct/re-direct their peers when appropriate. If the majority of the group models behavior that is functional and productive, it’s easier to get others to follow suit. 
  4. Focus on building your own influence. If you are trusted and respected, and therefore have adequate influence on the group, you will have an easier time setting expectations and better ability to encourage compliance. 

Remember that the personality traits of your board members are not your responsibility and that disruptive behavior is, usually, not personal. When you have a solid foundation of policies, allies, and influence, you'll be able to keep the tendencies of others from standing in the way of real progress and safeguard your organization against dysfunction from the inside out




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