How Can You Stop Your Board from Micromanaging?

Woman holding out hand to stop It starts innocently enough. A board member calls your program manager to answer a question. During the call, she instructs the staff member on how to use the information. Or, perhaps in a crisis, the board members step in to provide ballast.
Whatever the cause, months later, you realize that incident was the first time you noticed your board’s micromanaging habit. Habitual micromanaging harms nonprofits. Instead of aligning around one set of goals, micromanaged entities meander. Meandering nonprofits try to move in multiple directions simultaneously and go in circles–at best. Board members don’t mean to harm nonprofits when they micromanage, yet it happens.
What can you do to eradicate and prevent the board’s micromanaging habits? How can you get them to focus on governance? Here are four answers to adopt today.

1. Establish Role Clarity

Each week, you and your staff interact with the board in dozens of ways. When is the board member representing the board? When are they volunteering as individuals? Whenever they are meeting in a quorum, they transform into your board. You follow their collective directions on policy and strategies. When they are not in a quorum, they act as individuals, i.e., volunteers. The staff’s role is to manage day-to-day operations.

Review your last dozen individual board member interactions. What role did each board member take?

What role did you accept? How will you respond when individual board members tell you or your staff how to do things?
To extinguish micromanaging, establish clarity about your board members’ authority in two distinct situations: speaking as a board during a meeting and when they’re on their own. As part of their onboarding or during a meeting, review their roles. They will understand the logic of staff needing one set of guidelines, not half a dozen or more from board members. ( Too many cooks spoil the broth.)  While you’re at it, ask them for advice, “How would you like to be reminded if you forget you are acting without your other board members?

2. Governance Focus Only

Understanding when board members are acting as a board is one type of role clarity everyone needs at your nonprofit. The second way to stop your board from micromanaging involves board meeting behaviors. Your board chair opens the discussion about an agenda item, and the conversation drifts into what the staff should do and how they should do it. Or, more commonly, the board stays in their governance lane, except when it comes to activities that personally engage them, such as a pet project, new activity, or significant expenditure.

The best way to avoid this overreach behavior is to prevent it. Pull open our last board agenda. What items did you bring to them? Where are the management decisions? Or policy and strategy questions? Label management decision “M” and the strategy or policy issues “SP.” How did you do? Many nonprofit leaders are embarrassed when they realize they’ve invited board micromanaging. It’s a standard error.

The good news is that you can quickly correct this dysfunctional behavior by planning what you will ask and working with committee members to frame their reports to the board. Hence, when the committee chair shares the report, the chair ends with a strategy question. Or, you follow up the report by outlining the board policies you need to make agenda items operational.

But what if you do this and your board members still insist on micromanaging your decisions? Ideally, you have a board chair or board champion with whom you can have an honest conversation. With this partner, you discuss the chaos and frustration the board’s behavior creates and the guidance you need from the board to succeed together. Together you can become a force to guide the board back toward setting policy for your nonprofit.

3. Recognize the Role of Fear

Lack of role clarity is the most common reason we assign for why boards micromanage. Just as often, unnamed fear or anxiety causes it.
Poor role clarity is the leading cause of members messing in day-to-day operations for boards that haven’t explored their responsibilities and roles. However, when boards know their roles, have had all their questions answered about an agenda item, and still micromanage, often something else is going on.
Anxiety can be about current challenges, something that happened in the past, or something that happened to another organization making headlines.

A Fear Example

Let’s step into one of your board member’s heads for a minute.

You’ve been a board member for about a year. You’ve attended an orientation.  Each month, you have an opportunity to learn more about the organization at the board meeting and committee meeting. During today’s board meeting, you realize that the organization needs to spend one-tenth of its annual budget on a client confidentially system to meet HIPPA requirements.

Everyone is upset, unhappy, and worried by this news. While everyone knows that the board’s role is to govern, your discussion veers from governance to micromanaging in about two minutes. You stop exploring ways to fund this unexpected expense and switch to how you will choose a vendor, who will have access to the data, and other staff issues.

The member you imagine has never had to make this big a financial decision, and economic choices freak them out, and they are worriers by nature. Controlling the details soothes the anxiety.

Fear can be collective or individual. Anxiety can be about current challenges, something that happened in the past, or something that happened to another organization making headlines.

Fear is almost always contagious, and the best way to tame it is to hear it and name it. Once named, the board can establish policies or limits that allow staff to mitigate the risks and the board to put their fears at bay.

4. Ask the Question that Scares You the Most

The final way to stop your board from micromanaging involves asking and listening to the answers about the board’s trust in your leadership. When it comes to micromanaging, this is what most nonprofit CEOs fear the most.

Instead of wondering and worrying, ask for a performance appraisal. Are you delivering on the board’s expectations? If your board has lost faith in your leadership abilities, it’s best to know it. Suppose your fears are ungrounded and the board is pleased with your leadership. In that case, you’re in an ideal place to share with those who evaluate your goals to make your organization function better than ever, including moving from operations to a governance board.

Big picture, you’ll use every step of the board member lifecycle to educate them. Share the board’s role with prospects, recruits, and members for policy and strategy work. When a board member takes on the chair’s role, the education continues. If you fail to teach your board how to help, they’ll assume micromanaging is what you need. After all, setting policies and establishing strategies is hard work. Armchair managing is more straightforward than creating policies. Moreover, most people have more experience doing tasks than governing.

Thrive in the Tension

“Good fences make good neighbors,” Robert Frost’s words inspired this post. Twice in Frost’s poem, Mending Wall, a neighbor says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The poem epitomizes the need to keep your board focused on their work so you can do your work. When your board focuses on determining your strategy and establishing policies, your board leverages everyone’s efforts. In the poem, Frost and his neighbor mend their fences. Mend your staff-board tasks boundary breaches.
You can stop your board’s micromanaging habit.
Need more help with your board? Karen is available for a mini-consult or more. Read about how Board Rx can help you.  Click here to email or here to set a time to chat.

Karen Eber Davis

Karen Eber Davis Consulting guides executive directors and CEOs to generate the resources, boards, and support they need to make remarkable progress on their missions. As the award-winning thought-leader, advisor, and founding principal of Karen Eber Davis Consulting, Karen helps nonprofit leaders get answers, generate revenue, and grow their mission. Davis is known for her innovation and practicality based on her work with or visits to over 1,000 nonprofit organizations and her experience leading board and team events. She is the author of 7 Nonprofit Income Streams and Let's Raise Nonprofit Millions Together.