Wrangling tricky board types

A board meeting isn't a family dinner, predicated on the idea that everyone should get along, avoiding contentious subjects. A board has to find a balance between behaving like a group of friends, agreeing on most things and getting along famously, and being an aggressive grouping of opposing factions with very different personalities and points of view.

A board has to find a balance between behaving like a group of friends, agreeing on most things and getting along famously,

and being an aggressive grouping of opposing factions with very different personalities and points of view.

Properly functioning boards exist in constructive tension, where people with different philosophies, personalities and backgrounds make decisions at a high level, for the good of the organisation.

Creative tension demands quite a lot of the individuals. Dissonance is never as easy as compliance and agreement. It is the chair's responsibility to foster healthy dissent and oversee robust discussions.

And, this has to be done while maintaining an atmosphere of respect and civility.

As a chair, it is essential that you build respect, trust and understanding through fairness, ensuring that there is no pushing of private agendas; model honesty by keeping your word and not playing tricks; and cultivate good communication by keeping everybody in the loop. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, you are bound to encounter some difficult board members. We've compiled a list of six types of challenging board members you might have encountered, as well as some tips on how to deal with them.

The Aggressor

The aggressor tends to dominate debates and discussions, often talking over other board members or shouting to make their view heard above all others. Other board members regularly submit to the views of the aggressor to keep the peace, neglecting their duty to contribute fully to the workings and decisions of the board.

When things get heated, the chair should acknowledge the aggression in a neutral manner without taking sides. For example, you may interject with, "You appear to be passionate about...". Or you could intervene by saying, "Len has given us his view that...", and then ask, "What does everybody else think?". If necessary, adjourn for coffee to let tempers cool, and use the opportunity to remind the aggressor of their responsibilities to the board. If the behaviour is an ongoing problem, then you might need to speak with the aggressor privately about their communication style, and how it may be detrimental to effective decision making.

Chair strategy for dealing with "the aggressor":

  • Acknowledge the aggression
  • Intervene
  • Take a break if necessary
  • Speak to them privately about their communication style.

The Passenger

Some board members turn up, but that's all. They sit there looking bored as the discussion runs on, never comment, never move a motion or an amendment, never make a suggestion or offer advice, and only perk up when the coffee and biscuits are brought in at the end of the meeting. You may wonder, "What are they getting out of it? Why do they keep coming? Why don't they step down and let someone who can make a positive contribution take their place on the board?".

It is the job of the chair to see that nobody is allowed to run as the passenger. The chair should be pressing everybody for comment, especially if they seem to be hanging back. Who knows, if they get a clear run, they may find that they like speaking up. Duties should be allocated among the board members, and the chair should be prepared to exert pressure on members to take up the challenges presented by their position. However, the chair and the whole board should also be sensitive to the presence of any problems that the passenger board member might be having that might affect their performance.

Chair strategies for dealing with "the passenger":

  • Press everybody for comment
  • Allocate duties among the board
  • Be sensitive to problems

The Bureaucrat

The board is elected to govern the organisation - to set its direction, to focus on the mission, to look at the big picture.

Unfortunately, some people are constitutionally myopic, and are unable to lift their gaze away from the detail. One writer on management, C. Northcote Parkinson, suggested that the time spent discussing matters in meeting was usually inversely proportional to their importance - that a decision to commit a million dollars to a new building would take 20 minutes, while a decision on whether to charge 20 cents for a cup of coffee in the staff room would run for one and a half hours. He was not entirely serious, but we've all been to meetings like this.

Some people do obsess over trivia, and a board meeting is a storehouse of delicious opportunities to unleash that obsession.

If you let the bureaucrat have their way, you may quickly find your discussion floundering in a quagmire of trivialities.

It is important for the chair to be mindful of the board's main objectives, remember the agenda, and move the meeting along.

Chair strategy for dealing with "the bureaucrat":

  • Remind the group of the bigger picture
  • Determine what is essential to decide right now
  • Don't get bogged down - delegate the details

The Outlaw

The only person who can make you think charitably about the obsessive-compulsive behaviour of board bureaucrats is their polar opposite - the board member who can't remember the rules at all, or can't see the point of them, and behaves as if they are at their own table. These people ignore standing orders, however loose. They interrupt continually, however often they are asked to wait. They bring up long decided issues over and over throughout the meeting. They are impatient with formalities, even those concerning significant matters, like conflict of interest or financial accounting. It is hard to get them to read the organisation's policies, and harder still to get them to pay attention.

In combination, the bureaucrat and the outlaw waste even more time than each individually. Every time the outlaw defies the rules, the bureaucrat will object, derailing the discussion still further. Standing orders are a useful tool in guarding against both threats simultaneously. Standing orders should give the chair enough freedom to route around bureaucratic obstruction while still ensuring enough structure to hold back lawless marauding.

Chair strategy for dealing with "the outlaw":

  • Remind them of their obligations to the board and the organisation
  • Ensure that all rules and standing orders are applied equally and consistently
  • Reinforce the "why" - highlight the importance of the procedures

The Rambler

Everyone is familiar with the work of the rambler. They drone on and on during meetings, speaking at length about irrelevant issues and restating points people have already heard and understood. Despite their tiresome monologues, the rambler is often a nice person, and colleagues are usually unwilling to offend them by directly confronting the problem.

When the rambler gets to rambling, the chair needs to watch the group's body language for signs of frustration. Use polite questions or firm interventions to move the conversation on. If the problem persists, you may want to set a time limit on individual contributions; however, you must make sure this applies to all board members.

Chair strategy for dealing with "the rambler":

  • Watch for group frustration
  • Use polite questions or firm interventions
  • Set a time limit on individual contributions

The Dormouse

Timid, nervous, or just quiet, the dormouse rarely makes a peep. They are not forthcoming, particularly in the presence of more dominant personalities, and as such are easily overlooked or forgotten. The chair shouldn't assume the silence of the dormouse is a result of lack of interest - they may feel that their opinion is not valued, or be hesitant to disagree with someone who aggressively expresses strong opinions. Ask them regularly whether they have views to contribute, and listen attentively when they do. If the silence persists, meet them outside the meeting and ask them whether they're happy with their role.

Chair strategy for dealing with "the dormouse":

  • Invite them to contribute
  • Listen attentively
  • If necessary,have a private talk regarding their role

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