Dealing with difficult board members
Most experienced not-for-profit board members will tell you that one of
the most rewarding aspects of their position is the opportunity it gives
them to work alongside some fantastic colleagues.
But what happens when you come across a board member who is not pulling
his or her weight? What if one member is throwing around too much
weight, dominating discussions or intimidating other members? What about
the person who seems to want to "white ant" all of the board's
decisions? Or the one who means well but just doesn't seem to grasp his
or her responsibilities?
Hopefully, you will never come across any such people but human nature
being what it is, chances are you probably will.
This help sheet is designed to try to offer some strategies for dealing
with difficult board members. One word of warning, however. Just because
you personally do not get along with a particular member does not mean
they are necessarily "difficult". Personality clashes should not be
used as an excuse to sideline a colleague.
Case study 1: The dominator
One person dominates debates and discussions, often talking over other board
members or shouting to make their view heard above all others. Other
board members regularly submit to the view of the dominator in order to
keep the peace, neglecting their duty to contribute fully to the
workings and decisions of the board.
- If you have a good relationship with the board member, arrange to
meet him/her informally to talk about the problem. If you are not
comfortable doing this, ask the board chair to speak to them – after
all, it is the chair's job to ensure meetings are conducted smoothly and
that all members are given a chance to contribute.
- Speak with your board colleagues about the possibility of placing
time limits on individual contributions to debates or discussions during
meetings. This can be easily achieved with a stop-watch controlled by
Case study 2: The bludger
The bludger may be present and even active during board meetings but does little work in
between. He or she does not read the agenda before meetings, does not
review the minutes and does not carry out tasks assigned to him or her,
or regularly completes tasks late.
- Make sure that all board members are aware of their roles and
responsibilities. Hold a special meeting or retreat to renegotiate them.
Ask all members to sign a statement confirming they understand what is
expected of them.
- Try to find out reasons the board member is not pulling his or
her weight, particularly if this appears to be a new problem. It may be
that personal or work commitments are encroaching on their time more
than usual, or that they have lost interest or faith in the board's
mission. If the member is struggling for time, ask if they would like
work to be reassigned to another member. If they have lost interest or
faith in the board, ask them to offer solutions to fix the problem.
Case study 3: The absentee
The absentee does not often attend board meetings. In fact, he or she does not take part
in many board events at all. Colleagues are resentful of the apparent
lack of commitment and are beginning to wonder why the absentee is even
acknowledged as a member.
- The most important function of a board member is to attend
meetings; after all, it is here that important decisions are made and
directions are decided. Ensure all board members are aware of their
responsibility to attend most, if not all, meetings.
- Try to find out what is preventing the member from attending
regularly. If the meetings are too boring, or usually run over time, or
are held at inconvenient times or locations, more long-term strategies
may need to be put in place to fix the problem.
- Consider "naming and shaming" slack board members by publishing
attendance records in the agenda. This may help to discourage the
absentee from skipping meetings.
- Check if your rules require a certain minimum level of
attendance. If they do, point this out to the absentee member. If they
don't, consider putting such a rule in place.
Case study 4: The non-contributor
The non-contributor is a silent fixture of most meetings. He or she rarely
if ever contributes to discussions or debates and never volunteers for
- The chair can encourage a greater contribution by asking the
member for their opinion during meetings and discussions. If the
non-contributor is merely shy or uncomfortable about voicing his or her
opinion, a direct approach might help to bring them out of their shell.
Similarly, non-contributors might be more than happy to take on board
tasks but could be unwilling to push themselves forward – asking them
directly if they will do this or that might encourage a greater
- Ensure all members are aware of their legal duty to contribute to
board decisions, and point out that just turning up is not enough to
fulfill this duty.
Case study 5: The empire builder
These board members can be a real worry as they appear less interested in the
organisation they are governing than how they can use their position to
further their own personal or business ends. They lobby to get their
"mates" and supporters onto the board and there are real concerns about
potential or real conflicts of interest.
- Ensure all members are aware of their primary duty to the group
they are governing, that they are familiar with the board's ethics and
conflict of interest policies and that all personal or business
interests are lodged on the board's "interest register".
- Ensure you have a rigorous board member selection and recruitment
process in place so that all potential board members are given equal
treatment and selected on their merits, rather than "who they know".
Case study 6: The white-anter
Sometimes it seems like this board member is working against the community group rather
than for it. Every debate is turned into a "me versus them" contest and
the member will not support majority decisions of the board s/he has not
voted for. The white-anter regularly disrupts meetings with tantrums
and walk-outs and bad-mouths the board to outside influences including
- Ensure that all board members are getting a fair hearing during
debates and that all decision-making procedures are followed to the
letter. Don't give the white-anter an opportunity to accuse the board of
unfair or improper decision-making.
- Make sure all board members are aware of their duty to operate as
a team. If necessary, undertake some "team-building" exercises, such as
informal functions or retreats.
- While dissenting views are normal and healthy, working against
majority decisions is not. The board may need to consider some long-term
strategies that could include having this board member removed.
Case study 7: The bore
Everyone is familiar with the work of the bore. S/he drones on and on during
meetings, speaking at length about irrelevant issues and restating
points people have already heard and understood. Despite the tiresome
monologues, the bore is often a nice person and colleagues are usually
unwilling to offend them by directly confronting the problem.
- Consider the possibility of placing time limits on individual
contributions to debates or discussions during meetings. This can be
easily achieved with a stop-watch controlled by the chair. Because all
members will be subject to the same rule, this offers a tactful way of
minimising the pain caused by the bores' interminable speeches.
Case study 8: The dinosaur
This person has served on the board for what seems like forever. While the other board
members respect his/her commitment to the organisation and the
historical knowledge s/he brings to the role, some are worried that
his/her presence is contributing to a "staleness" within the board.
- A good mix of youth and experience never goes astray on a
community group board. However, a regular turnover and injection of new
ideas is also good for a board's long-term prospects. Initiate a
discussion about the possibility of putting in place term limits,
stipulating that board members can only serve for certain number of
consecutive years or terms. This will ensure a regular turnover of
We have already looked at some of the more common difficult personality traits
that can undermine the effectiveness of a board, and some strategies
for overcoming them. Many of the strategies we identified presented
short-term fix to the problems. This help sheet will look at some more
long-term, systemic strategies your board can use to minimise
disruption caused by a difficult board member.
Finding the long-term antidote
Difficult board members can present a real challenge to the
cohesiveness and effectiveness of a board. While it is possible to
merely try to wait out the problem – i.e. put up with the difficult
board member in the hopes that they will mend their ways or leave the
board when their term is up – this is not a recommended course of
action. It is likely that if left unchecked, problem behaviour will
worsen, creating a highly damaging effect on the board culture and
impeding the board's duty to function as a team.
In general, all board members should take responsibility for the
efficient functioning of their team, however the chair and deputy chair
are usually expected to provide leadership when problems arise.
The board should also put in place long-term structural measures to
ensure that problems such as those highlighted above are prevented from occurring in the first place.
- Ensure you have a good board recruitment and selection process in
place, including screening of potential members. This will allow you to
make a proper assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of potential
members before they are offered a place. More information about putting
such processes in place is provided in the finding, recruiting and selecting the right board members help sheets.
- An effective orientation program should also be put in place to
ensure that all new board members are aware of all their
responsibilities, including their duty to contribute and their duty to
operate as part of a team. (See the Developing an effective induction process help sheet for more information.) Consider asking all new
members to sign a position description to show they understand and agree
to fulfill their responsibilities. Re-state (and, if necessary,
re-negotiate) responsibilities every year.
- Consider trialling potential new board members by offering them a
place on a committee before they are offered a seat on the full board.
This will allow the board to see prospective candidates in action, and
hopefully uncover any problems early.
- Put in place a board development committee or a peer review
system to allow for regular assessment of the performance of board
members – in much the same way that a work supervisor would assess the
performance of an employee. Performance evaluations allow members to
find out if their behaviour is causing problems for the board and give
them an opportunity to improve their effectiveness.
- Ensure those elected to the positions of chair and deputy chair
are aware of the leadership role they will be expected to fulfill if
disputes arise. Consider sending board leaders on a course to help
develop their dispute resolution and leadership skills.
- Give board members the opportunity to interact informally away
from the boardroom. This will help members to get to know each other as
individuals, which can inject a greater degree of respect and
understanding into board deliberations.
- Review your meeting procedures to ensure that they provide the
best possible opportunity for full and frank contributions by every
member of the board. Consider putting in place time limits for
contributions during debates to make sure meetings don't drag on or are
dominated by just one person. Look at whether you need to put in place
minimum attendance requirements. See the Orchestrating great meetings help sheet for more information on this topic.
- Put in place a process to allow board members to provide regular
feedback (anonymously, if necessary) on any problems or issues they may
have identified. This way you can detect potential problems (for
example, board members who feel the organisation is heading in the wrong
direction) early on and take action to minimise any impacts that might
- Consider putting in place term limits for board members. This
will ensure that troublesome board members will have to depart
eventually. The downside of this approach, of course, is that good board
members will also be forced to leave when their term is up. However, it
is widely considered that the positive effects of having regular
turn-over of board members generally outweigh the negatives.
- Think about whether your board needs to put in place a procedure
to allow members to take a short-term leave of absence when necessary.
This can provide breathing space for a board member who is temporarily
unable to give their board duties his/her full attention. Put a strict
time limit on the absence and reassess the situation when the time
- In very rare and extreme circumstances, the board might have to
consider removing a troublesome member. Your board's rules, constitution
or bylaws should detail procedures for removal of members; often it
involves a two-thirds vote by board members or the organisation's full
membership. This course of action should be considered only as a very
last resort as it can be highly damaging to the board, the organisation
and the membership.