April 11, 2022

How Can You Stop Your Board from Micromanaging?

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 was a 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 dozens of ways. When is the board member representing the board? When are they volunteering as individuals? Whenever they meet 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. Talking about this difference can help you, and your board members understand their roles and explore the gray area. The gray is filled with situations where two good people might disagree on whether a topic is micromanaging or governing. For instance, if a staff member’s resignation was a one-time event or part of a trend.
Is your board micromanaging? 2 interlocking circles with micromanaging in one and governance in the other with the gray area in between
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. Focus on Governance 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 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 information, the chair ends with a strategy question you developed together.

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 honestly talk.
With this person, you discuss the chaos and frustration the board’s behavior creates. You share the guidance you need from the board to succeed. Together you can become a force to guide the board back toward setting policy for your nonprofit.

3. Recognize Your Fear

Lack of role clarity is the most common reason we assign for board micromanagement. Just as often, unnamed fear or anxiety causes it.
Poor role clarity is the leading cause of members messing with 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 problems, 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. You learn more about the organization monthly at the board and committee meetings. During today’s board meeting, the chair announces 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. While everyone knows that the board’s role is to govern, your discussion veers from governance to micromanaging in two minutes. You stop exploring how to fund the system and switch to how you will choose a vendor who will have access to the data and other staff issues.

Unknown to you, this member has never made this big a financial decision. Economic choices freak them out, and they are worriers by nature. Controlling the details soothes their anxiety.

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

Fear is contagious. The best way to tame it is to name it. Once named, you can guide the board to establish policies that allow staff to reduce the risks and put the board’s 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 your leadership. When it comes to micromanaging, most nonprofit CEOs fear this the most.

Instead of worrying, ask. Request 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 your goals to improve your organization with your evaluators, 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. The education continues when a board member takes on the chair’s role.

If you fail to guide your board, 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? Read about how Board Rx can help you. Karen is available for a mini-consult or more. Click here to email or here to set a time to chat.
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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