Board Dysfunction – Know How to Use It

Updated: Sep. 22, 2020  |  Categories: Board Productivity, Chapter Leadership Turnover  

Board Dysfunction – Know How to Use It

Your board contains different types of people, with different personalities and different skillsets. And, those differences are exactly what you need to meet the mission of your chapter and support your members. That is, if you know the source of the dysfunction and can figure out how to use it to your advantage. This confusion can’t be an excuse to sit paralyzed and frozen.

Instead, lean in. Acknowledge the dysfunction and the resulting confusion and figure out what you need to do, in the moment and/or before you get to that point. Once you understand the source of the “problem,” you may find it’s not a problem at all, and you just need to ask and listen, hear the different voices and respond appropriately.  

Do your chapter dysfunctions sound like any of these?

A single point of failure. Let’s say one person manages your website and they’ve just announced they’re changing industries. Not only are they leaving the board, they’re leaving the chapter. Do you have a backup or are this person’s responsibilities written down anywhere? If not, it’s time for a lot of questions. Now isn’t the time to hold back. It’s time to be vulnerable and potentially uncomfortable and admit you don’t know what the person does. Ask them all, big or small, so you can best determine how to manage all he was responsible for, while also documenting these tasks and determining who can best handle them in the short- and long-term.  

Poor onboarding. If new board members are left to flounder when they start, there will be dysfunction. A new board member may sit quietly and not participate, perhaps because they don’t know exactly what they’re responsible for or perhaps because they’re worried about saying the wrong thing. They may want to say exactly what you need to hear, but if they don’t feel comfortable saying it, that’s dysfunction.

What tools can you provide to make it easier for them? Job descriptions can be a big help to the new board member but you can also make all board job descriptions required reading for all board members, to give the board as a whole an understanding of the responsibilities of their counterparts. Another strong tool is short instructional videos on topics new board members can expect to encounter, like your volunteer program, website, or your board’s structure and responsibilities. Voice the video with a previous board member, to provide a powerful, “I’ve been there” perspective.

A personality conflict. Perhaps your board is dealing with the difficulties of a single person. This is another time where it’s important to talk and to ask questions. How will you learn otherwise what the core issue is? Is this person just angry or is there a good reason he’s trying to go in the opposite direction of the rest of the board? Perhaps he has an important point to make that will lead to an eye-opening moment. Maybe you’ll learn the person is having a tough time, or maybe by getting to the root of the issue, you’ll learn board members need to do a better job of interacting with each other.

For each of these situations, you won’t know how to move forward till you do some digging and a lot of asking. But often that’s not what happens. People don’t want to admit they don’t know something. Have the discussions necessary to learn and move the organization forward, which could mean having uncomfortable conversations and/or asking what you view to be “stupid” questions. But in the end, those questions won’t be stupid – they’ll be just what you need.

Yes, board dysfunction can be used to your advantage, but if that dysfunction isn’t understood and managed, your membership will begin to see the cracks. Those cracks could lead to some grumbling from your members, or they could lead to dissent, where members begin to question what’s going on. Understand and harness your board’s dysfunction, and you won’t have to worry if they’re wondering if members are feeling it too and are considering going elsewhere.


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