How to Manage Difficult Board Members During Meetings

contributed by Linda Wastyn, Ph.D.

Struggling to manage difficult board members during meetings? The following article is contributed by Linda Wastyn, Ph.D. of Wastyn & Associates, who also serves an adjunct instructor in the Master of Organizational Leadership program at St. Ambrose University. Her advice will help you facilitate board meetings that prove challenging when different (and difficult) personalities begin to clash…

You probably heard that your board should have diversity and represent your community. Diversity comes not only in gender and racial and ethnical backgrounds, but in terms of personalities, communication styles, and the roles board members assume in small group discussions.

A healthy group has people who serve the role of cheerleader (“Go Team!”), naysayer (“That’s wrong”), pacifier (“Let’s just get along”), and accommodator (“Whatever you want”). You will also have introverts who think before they speak and extraverts to speak before they think. Working together, these different personalities help the group make the best decision possible.

But managing people with these different personalities can make facilitating a board meeting challenging as their ideas and communication tendencies clash. You may need to draw out an accommodator, help a pacifier accept and engage in conflict, and manage a naysayer.

If you have the charge to facilitate a board meetingor any conversationthese tips for how to manage different personalities of board members will help you get the best out of every member while making them feel a part of the conversation and the decision.

Six Tips on How to Manage Difficult Board Members

  1. Give the meeting your full attention. Listen openly to everyone, giving them your fill attention. Resist the temptation to think too far ahead so that it distracts you from the task at hand. And don’t check your phone (other than to manage the time).
  2. Watch for cues that people want to join the conversation. Some people dominate while others struggle to jump in (often because of the dominators!). Look for subtle cues that indicate someone wants to join the conversation. Common cues include a raised hand (OK, not so subtle), the half-raised hand, leaning forward, a partially open mouth, or even starting to say something and getting cut off. I’ll say something like “Chris, did you have something to add?” or “Sam’s been trying to say something.”
  3. Manage dominating personalities. If you let one or a few people dominate the conversation, you miss out on the opinions of the others. Sometimes these people can help get a conversation started and you feel grateful for them. But if you find that others have trouble getting a word in edgewise or withdraw from the conversation (leaning back, crossing their arms, checking their phones), then you need to invite others to speak. Thank the dominating person for their points and ask if others have opinions or, gently call on someone. “Sam. We’ve not heard from you on this. What do you think about this topic?”
  4. Embrace silence. As a facilitator, we often feel like we need to fill silence. But silence gives people a chance to think. When you keep talking, you cut off thinking time. If the silence continues for too long (and it lasts not nearly as long as you think!), rephrase the question, provide an example of the type of answer you seek, or call on someone who looks like they have an answer.
  5. Allow naysayers to have their say. Frustrating as they are (I should know; that’s me!), naysayers serve an important role in healthy group process. They prevent “group think”the tendency of a group to go along with a popular decision for fear of rocking the boatand help group members analyze all sides of an issue or highlight the implications of a decision that others may overlook. While you want to let them have their say, don’t let them dominate or derail a decision. Take the time to review their concerns, make a decision, and move on.
  6. Allow everyone to have their say, move the group to consensus, then move on. You want to have discussion and disagreement around the board table to come to the best decision possible but, once you make a decision, the board should speak and move with one voice. Sometimes I’ll do a gut check to make sure everyone feels comfortable and can support the final decision. If not, you may need to go back and see if you can find more common ground. If so, you can celebrate a good decision and move on to the next.

If board members continually revisit a decision after the board has voted, you can (1) remind them that you made a decision and they had their chance to have their say or (2) ask them to include the issue on a future agenda so you can discuss it again. But, to discuss it again, they should have new information to raise, not rehash old issues.

RELATED: 6 Tips for Managing A Board Meeting 

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