3 Ways to Stop it and Avoid it in the Future

(this post was originally published as a guest blog for CSAE)

If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will. That one board member who keeps getting in your space. They may be going to your staff with specific questions or ideas. They may think it’s ok to challenge the bookkeeper because of their finance background. They may derail the committee meeting agenda. They might tell the CEO to stop a certain project and focus on their favorite one.

This common behavior must be dealt with and not be allowed to continue or your organization can really suffer. From low morale to inefficiencies to downright conflict of interest, nothing good comes from board members overstepping.

Before you lose your mind though, remember one thing. It’s very unlikely that they woke up thinking about how they could ruin your day.

Chances are good they are very well-intentioned so let’s take a breath.

And keep this in mind when it comes to who should address this issue: Not the CEO. It is the board chair’s responsibility to manage the board and therefore handle any inappropriate behavior. So be sure your CEO and board chair are on the same page. And if the board chair is waffling, consider this a leadership development opportunity and coach them along.

Let’s take a look at what’s going on with these overstepping board members.

There is likely one of three reasons they are behaving this way.

1. They honestly don’t understand that they alone don’t have authority to make decisions. Somewhere along the line they missed the part about the board being a governing entity – no one individual has power, only the board as a whole can make decisions and direct work. But their intentions are good.

What to do: Create an opportunity to review roles and responsibilities. Do you have an annual retreat coming up? Is it time to review annual board expectations as you recruit new members? It might be valuable for the whole board to participate in the discussion. Take each major function, such as setting strategic direction or hiring staff, and identify what the board role is and what the staff role is. Let the veteran board members take the lead and have some fun with it.

Then be sure going forward that when you recruit new members, you outline division of responsibilities; and then cover it again in the orientation.

2. They are worried or afraid of something. Has there been a recent financial scare? Some bad press that’s affecting your reputation? Did a key staff person leave? Do they feel vulnerable in some way because things are changing? Sometimes during transition, folks freak out and start to micromanage because they feel unsettled and might see the organization as being unstable. But their intentions are good.

What to do: Establish open communication channels and invite conversation about how the transition or sensitive issue is being handled. And instead of going to staff, board members can let the board chair know they would like to have a certain topic added to the board agenda, for example. Also, be sure staff know that if board members approach them about operational matters, to respectfully refer them to the board chair who will determine whether or not to bring the issue up as board business.

When you’re proactive, you can avoid some of this anxiety by ensuring everyone knows what is being done in uncertain times and emphasize what the communication channels are, even before they’re needed.

3. They are not happy with a decision. Maybe the board took action that not everyone supported. Or a board member doesn’t understand why staff is delivering a particular program a certain way. Somewhere there is dissent and they are sticking their nose where it doesn’t belong to try to influence the situation. But they have good intentions.

What to do: Let them know their opinion is respected and once it’s been heard, either the CEO (if it’s an operational issue) or the board as a whole decides how to move forward. Further debate isn’t productive. There may be a time in the future when it would be prudent to revisit the matter, in the spirit of continuous improvement, but firmly state it’s important to move forward. These situations can be a little tricky so if you know the dynamic is going to be dicey, the board chair may want to include another volunteer who is widely respected who can help support the conversation.

You can’t predict how a board member will respond to an issue, but you can set up parameters that allow for thorough review and discussion of issues so everyone feels heard and understands the decision-making process.

Seek first to understand, right?

You probably have many well-intentioned, terrific volunteers on your board who are working hard to keep advancing your mission. You certainly need to deal with any overstepping issues.  At the same time, focus on your strengths and continue to develop a high performing board by recruiting new members periodically.

Now if someone has anything other than good intentions or is genuinely not interested in being a good team player, they may need to be asked to move on. But that’s a topic for another blog…