June 24, 2023

How to Manage Toxic Board Members

Are They a Jerk? Or Do They Have a Point?

He was problematic. After working with hundreds of boards over two decades, he stands out.

Let’s call him Mr. Difficult. Everyone around him, especially his family, walked on eggshells to avoid his tirades. His board service spun the nonprofit into chaos. He specialized in going for the jugular.

Looking back, I suspect Mr. Difficult suffered from a personality disorder.

Are You Making This Common Mistake?

Mr. Difficult’s personality disorder was an exception. Most board members do not have them. (Only about 25 percent of board conflicts stem from personality issues.)

Most board members have a point.

When you assume that your most annoying board member has personality issues—and most of us do this—take care. Our next move after assigning labels is to manage them instead of taking their concerns seriously.

Unheard concerns can quickly seed board conflicts fester. Moreover, they may reflect an issue that your nonprofit needs to surface and deal with. So before labeling your challenging board member, take care.

Do more than take care. Create a log to capture, review, and analyze board member interactions.

Capture Board Behavior

Logging behaviors encourages you to focus on facts. (Looking at your log, you realize that even though it feels like Mr. Difficult’s always on you, he called thrice this month.) Facts recorded in a log offer you the luxury of perspective.

A log consists of a date, time, and an interaction summary and looks like this:

3/1/21 10:23 am, Mr. Difficult called. He is very upset about the board meeting. “The board spent no time on the expansion, and it’s the most important issue.” He assumed the board would discuss it. When he brought it up, everyone was leaving. I promised to bring it up with the chair and we’d get back to him. I recorded the promise in my calendar.

Does Mr. Difficult Have a Personality Disorder? Or a Point?

He’s been adamant about your expansion. And you’re a nonprofit committed to doing the addition. And the fact is, no one’s doing anything about it.

Mr. Difficult’s gung-ho about your plans, but he has a beef with your timing. You have a beef with his tactics.

Mr. Difficult has a point.

At the next meeting, you thank him for bringing up the issue and discussing it.

When he sees movement, Mr. Difficult transforms into Mr. Great Board Member (mostly!). You still need to remind him to use his inside voice carefully because you think he’s yelling.

Take a private bow. You resolved a potential board conflict and the expansion project’s moving forward.

What If It Is a Personality Disorder?

What if, instead, you’re dealing with a personality issue? Your member calls daily, switches sides on issues, and is generally disruptive. Your log will be even more essential.

According to one lawyer, your log record will stand up in court. Less dramatically, it demonstrates the interactions (and the challenge) without emotion. With it, you can work with your board champions to take thoughtful actions to reduce Mr. Difficult’s role. (You will also want to create term limits to gracefully remove board members who are not good team players. Read 3 Board Ground Rules that Prevent CEO Headaches.) For more on creating a log, see this article about recording behaviors written for juvenile detention centers.

Disagreements Equal Benefit- A Lot

Disagreements, as a rule, are healthy. When board members disagree, and healthy dialog ensures, your organization moves from fog to clarity. When board members have points, you want to hear them.

When board members have personality issues, you need support. Creating a log will help you discern the difference and plan your response.

More Resources

For more answers about boards, explore Karen’s Nonprofit CEO Library.

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Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis provides customized advising and coaching around nonprofit strategy and board development. People leaders hire her to bring clarity to sticky situations, break through barriers that seem insurmountable, and align people for better futures. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.


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