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10 Board Habits to Kick


Debra Thompson

10 Board Habits to Kick by Debra Thompson, Strategy Solutions

If you serve on a nonprofit board, you’ve probably seen (or done yourself) some problematic behaviors.

It’s natural to behave in a way that you feel is “right” and seems to align with your job as a board member. But certain board habits can wreak havoc on an organization.

That’s why it’s important to recognize when you, or someone on your board, is displaying problematic behavior. It’s even more important to intervene appropriately.

Here are 10 problematic board habits, and the specific ways to kick them:

     1.  Uninformed

This board member doesn’t know or understand the basics of governance, policies or strategic plan. There’s an education piece missing that prohibits them from being able to effectively serve on your board.

They don’t talk or ask questions to become informed either, so they keep their unique perspective under wraps with little contribution to be made.

     2.  Disengaged

When a board member is disengaged, they sit in meetings just to “be there,” probably keeping their video off on Zoom. In some cases, they may not come to meetings at all.

It’s hard to peak their interest in the needs of the organization and they have a habit of “rubber stamping” (approving without proper consideration).

Kick These Habits: Uninformed & Disengaged

These two habits are closely related to each other as being uninformed quickly leads to being disengaged. That’s why the intervention for them is the same. The Executive Director (ED) and Governance Committee members are responsible for educating other board members when necessary. The Board Chair should also intentionally request input from disengaged members in meetings and/or in a one-on-one conversation.

     3.   “Know It All”

We’ve all encountered a “know it all” at least once, whether that be on a nonprofit board or in our everyday lives. This person believes they have expertise in every area, despite probably having very little competency in any.

They’re not open to learning and therefore, cannot grow within their role as a board member.


     4.  Bully

The bully on your board thinks they are in charge. Usually they see the ED as their employee, believing that the ED works for them. In an extreme situation (and this actually happened), they might say something along the lines of, “I can fire your ass.”

In addition to bullying the ED, this person may also bully other board members by saying rude comments and/or disregarding other people’s ideas. Bullying can then lead to uninformed and disengaged board members.


     5.  Passive Aggressive

A passive aggressive board member is not comfortable directly expressing their feelings so instead, they say one thing in meetings and then do something else.

These people ultimately want control/credit and get angry when they don’t get their way. They might also attempt to manipulate people to their agenda behind the scenes, often proving that one bad apple can spoil the bunch.

     6.  Frenetic Idea Generator

If you’ve been hearing, “Hey do this” a lot, you might have a frenetic idea generator on your board. This member has hundreds of new ideas to implement before the next meeting, but often doesn't want to do the hard work to make them happen. This usually leads to unrealistic expectations on the ED.

They frequently respond to the ED’s questions with more ideas and more work. While their ideas may be good, they often aren’t realistic to accomplish immediately.

Kick These Habits: “Know It All,” Bully, Passive Aggressive & Frenetic Idea Generator

Sometimes without even realizing it, people with these characteristics are more focused on themselves than the mission of the organization. It can take a while for these board members to change, but an ED can find a rhythm that works. It is important for a board to have faith in their ED, unless proven otherwise.

First, it is helpful to re-educate about what the board role is and is not. Then, it is helpful to get an ongoing commitment from fellow board members that they will call out the behavior when it happens. Creating a healthy working relationship between the board and ED allows for a positive work environment and sustainable outcomes moving forward.

In order to kick these three habits, you need a village of board members who aren’t willing to tolerate them. With a solid front, the people with the problematic behavior will either come along or quit. Any good ideas that come to the forefront should be parked and vetted during the strategic planning process, that way the organization can properly resource and implement them.

     7.  Penny Wise & Pound Foolish

The board member who’s penny wise is fearful of any cash flow. They are highly concerned with the budget and frequently answer with, “We can’t afford that.”

Instead of focusing on how to raise the funds that are needed for the organization, they immediately say no to spending money.

     8.  “Negative Nancy”

Cynical, stuck, critical — these are all words to describe the “Negative Nancy” on your board. They don’t believe anything is possible and won’t genuinely celebrate significant accomplishments.

These people are typically frustrated idealists that don’t know what to do. They see the glass as half empty and expect perfection from themselves and others.

     9.  Undermining

An undermining board member isn’t trusting of the ED. All ideas or positive activities are shot down, as this board member feels they have more knowledge than the ED.

They believe they are protecting the organization by overstepping boundaries rather than trusting the ED to do their job effectively or giving constructive feedback when needed.

Kick These Habits: Penny Wise & Pound Foolish, “Negative Nancy” & Undermining

Board members who display any of these three habits are operating under the wrong assumptions, whether it be fear, cynicism or lack of trust. It’s important to understand that they think they’re doing the right thing. No one joins a board from a position of malice.

To kick these habits, you must redirect the board member by listening to them and learning what they’re thinking deep down. They often have legitimate concerns that should be talked about out loud. Healthy communication between the board of directors and the ED is key.

In a one-on-one conversation with this board member, the ED, Board Chair or Governance Chair should ask the question, “What concerns do you have that are making you feel this way?” Validate their worries, give feedback, and if needed, develop a plan that addresses their concerns to make them feel more confident in the ED and the rest of the board.

     10.  Too Quiet

The last habit we see in board members is being too quiet. These people are uncomfortable with conflict and don’t share feelings when they disagree.

This board member doesn’t confront bad behavior either, keeping quiet when it’s important that they speak up.

Kick This Habit: Too Quiet

Similar to the habits above, you can only kick the habit of being too quiet by having a one-on-one conversation to find out what they’re thinking and what’s causing them to be so quiet.

The ED, Board Chair or Governance Chair can take the lead on this discussion, determining if the board member is uninformed or simply conflict-averse.

If it’s the former, some education needs to take place. If it’s the latter, encourage them to say something after someone else does. They don’t have to be the first to speak, as long as they contribute.

By kicking these 10 board habits, you can ensure a healthy functioning nonprofit board that keeps the mission of the organization at the center.

Sometimes you’ll need additional support in handling problematic behaviors which is why Strategy Solutions is here to help.

With more than 25 years of experience, we’ve worked with both nonprofit and for-profit companies through organizational change and growth.

Debra Thompson is a licensed consultant, trainer and peer reviewer for the The Standards for Excellence:® An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector. Contact us today!

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