No one likes being the bearer of bad news. But when it comes to dealing with poor board member performance, confronting them can be especially awkward and unpleasant. Board members usually donate their time, in addition to managing a full-time career. Still, the organization deserves some priority and board members who are performing poorly need to be coached.
Your goal should be to help guide the board member back into a harmonious relationship with the organization, rather than pushing them further away. Here are a few tips that will help you to diffuse tension, preserve the board member’s dignity, and benefit your organization.
Whether the board member is failing to raise money, is not producing valid ideas, does not show up for meetings, or falling short in other ways- it’s best not to wait too long before addressing it. Begin by approaching them in private. As a leader, you know that any initial censure should be done in a way that respects the person’s relationship with their peers. It is important to have this discussion in person, as a sign of esteem. This is your first step to ensuring that the discussion is fruitful and not combative.
While a board member position is both voluntary and comes with a certain amount of dignity which reflects on your organization, keep in mind that it exists for a reason- and it needs to serve its purpose. Whether or not this is the first time the board member has had to be confronted about poor behavior, it should always be in a very professional tone. Center your comments and critiques in terms of an organizational need that is not being served. Explain what the mission requires and that their actions do not fulfill those requirements.
Be careful not to attack the person’s character. It could be that they have misunderstood their role, or that they are having some kind of personal trouble. It is best to focus on the specific behaviors they are exhibiting which need to change. Making general accusations is harmful. For example; “It is clear that you do not care about the mission of this organization and the people we serve” is not a constructive way to frame your concerns.
Instead, describe specific behaviors. Try statements like, “As a board, we set a goal of recruiting 3 volunteers each, and I believe you have recruited one” or; “When you do not show up at meetings without notice, it says to other members that you do not take our organization seriously.”
This directs the focus on what must be changed, rather than who must be changed.
Framing your criticism in the form of your own perception subtly suggests that you may have misunderstood their actions. Even if you are in the right, and you know it, framing observations in the form of “I” statements signals to them that this is a discussion, and that you will listen to the person’s response.
Consider the following two statements:
The difference between these statements is, one is an accusation while the other is an observation. You are signaling to them that they have an opportunity to change their behavior and maintain their position and their dignity.
Understand that they need to process what you are telling them. Presume there is something either you or the board member is not aware of. Maybe they did recruit the requisite amount of sponsors and the paperwork hasn’t made it to your desk yet, or maybe they were not aware of their duties.
Once you’ve had this difficult conversation, you have clarified what is required of your board member, given them a chance to explain their position, and preserved their reputation from being damaged by subsequent poor performance. After you’ve made your concerns clear in this way, if the board member does not show an improvement, it should be easier for you to ask them to step down at that time should the need arise.
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