Agony Uncle: Help me with this toxic board member

Borthwick Chris Jul2019lg

In this help sheet series, Our Community’s resident agony uncle, Chris Borthwick, offers answers to frequently asked questions about issues not-for-profits are facing.

Dear Agony Uncle,

My question is about a board member of a small volunteer charity whose negativity and controlling behavior affects our board dynamics. It seemed that our board members were behaving somewhat tetchily (we can only meet online) and though I suspected there was a link with the troublesome member, it was not entirely apparent until the board member took a month away from the board for personal reasons. Immediately the person left, the atmosphere of the communications became helpful and co-operative.
I am dreading the return of this board member, as I believe the tension will return then. There have been occasions when this person has been spoken to about their attitude, and while things improve temporarily, it’s just a quick fix that fades fast.
There has been behavior that goes against our code of conduct, bad mouthing about other members etc.
Does the solution lie in team-building and team dynamics training for the entire team, or does this person need to leave for the good of the board?

–Exhausted and anxious, NSW

Agony Uncle’s answer

I have every sympathy with your position, and I’m not minimising the damage that can be done to an organisation by negative people, but you’re asking for the impossible. You want a way to remove someone from the board without a nasty scene. There isn’t one.

If they were the kind of person who’d go quietly, there wouldn’t have been a problem in the first place. They even sound, I have to say, slightly more open to reason than many other cases I’ve been asked about – when spoken to they have apparently improved in the past, even if only temporarily, rather than bringing the whole organisation down around their ears in an eruption of unbridled rage.

I wouldn’t give up immediately on the option of speaking to them again. A temporary improvement, repeated over and over, may be the least bad option. I do appreciate, of course, the psychic strain of doing an unpleasant task over and over, but that may be balanced by an improved atmosphere. The risk of taking more aggressive action is that you may find yourself with just as much strain but without any improvement.

The temptation is to look to the quick and dirty route of expelling the irritant. This has two problems: it’s not always very quick, and it is always very dirty. The procedures for removing a person from the board are set out in the Act that governs your organisation and in the model rules (your default constitution), and they are, quite intentionally, protracted and troublesome. We don’t want a situation where a majority of a board can bounce a dissident without giving them a chance to make their case, and we’ve got laws to make that difficult.

What does your constitution say about the consequences of breaching the code of conduct? I’ll bet it doesn’t say that the person accused can be removed without offering them a chance to rebut the charge.

It’s almost always more satisfactory to hang on till the next AGM and vote the person off. That’ll involve finding another nominee, a bit of politicking, and making sure your friends turn up in numbers, but it’s the only way of removing the problem without having a public confrontation.

There is, of course, the option you suggest of having team building exercises for the whole board without invidious personalisation. This might work, but my experience is that people who make others uncomfortable are not generally sensitive enough to see that their behaviour falls outside the lines and can come through such an exercise untouched by any remorse. They’d probably think of themselves, for instance, as being realistic and decisive rather than being negative and controlling.

At base, in any case, this is a personality issue, and I’m afraid it’s not something any outsider can give you any reliable advice on. All I can say, unfortunately, is that there’s no simple mechanical fix.

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