Viewers Insights: Nonprofit Boardroom Elephants and the “Nice Guy” Syndrome: A Complex Problem

Viewers Insights: Nonprofit Boardroom
Elephants and the “Nice Guy” Syndrome: A Complex Problem

By Eugene Fram

This blog-post has gone viral and has received nearly 1000 views, and still counting, in the last two weeks, plus about two-dozen comments. Although most were simply descriptive, following are abstracts that have significantly added to the discussion.

The Problem:

Well-said Gene. Boards that shirk their responsibilities in this manner are doing a disservice to their organizations. When the duties are glossed over the organization becomes complacent and ineffective and everyone is affected in a negative way. Gerald Bricker 10/21/2013

I have watched a beloved ballet company close its doors as a result of this type of behavior. Rebecca Lacy 10/20/2013

Directors’ Behaviors That Contribute To The Problem

• Action Anxiety – anxious about action to take, so we fail to act.
• Negative Fantasies – we dream-up what will happen – ironclad excuse for inaction, so we play it safe.
• Separation – We are afraid of separation. Taking a minority stance may separate us from+ others.
• Fantasy & Reality – Not knowing what is real and what isn’t.
• Collusion – We are all in this together and are equally to blame.
• Blame the Leader – Really just more collusion Robin Cabral, 11/1/2013

It seem so much of this emanates from fear. Fear and insecurity within those who are in positions of power and who, subliminally and overtly, convey that anxiety to the group, resulting in peer pressure to “be quiet” and accept the status quo
Elaine Tselikis 11/1/2013

The Process

Most people don’t realize a process is a process – with principals, values and guidelines to follow and steps to which to go through. Even in groups who practice the consensus process, it can devolve into minority rule (because any one person can block consensus). Sherry Marts 11/28/2013

Sherry: That’s why I think traditional “board development “ misses the mark. It tends to focus on outward structures and misses the psychological, motivational and interpersonal aspects of building a cohesive, collegial team. Gail Perry, MBA, CFRE 10-28-2013

A big part of the problem is that most Boards (in my experience) seek to work by consensus rather than majority rule, even when their bylaws state that they follow Robert’s Rules of Order. Effective use of a real consensus process requires familiarity with, and training in, that form of group decision making. A consensus process is not “majority-rule by peer pressure.” Sherry Marts 10/28/2013

Possible Solutions
How to confront reality.
• Assess risk to take action or no action.
• Choose to remain silent or won up to our own beliefs and feelings.
• Confront the group. Robin Cabral, 11/1/2013

Another factor to be considered is that the pool of volunteers ready to commit themselves to the time, talent and treasure as board members is sometimes insufficient. That means nominating committees may not be selecting from the best in the community, instead just those who are readily available. To develop young leaders, some organizations have junior boards where members can begin to lean what is expected of them once they “graduate” to the main board. David Hinsley Cheng 11/1/2013

Seems like the challenge–especially for small or young nonprofits–is to get a critical mass of board members who sufficiently understand board responsibilities, so that you can get good solid policies and practices institutionalized. (A “critical mass” might be just one or two key players who have influence, or several who have the same priorities.) Once things are institutionalized, there is less risk that a change of players can reverse the direction in a way that is not beneficial to the board or to the organization. Ann Rudnicki 11/3/2013

One-way to confront group-think, peer pressured (or passive-aggressive) board members is to bring in a trained and effective facilitator. Good facilitation goes well beyond time keeping and remembering whose turn it is to speak. A good facilitator points out the elephants in the room, lifts up the rug to see what’s been swept under it, knows that “denial” is not a river in Egypt and holds the individuals in a group accountable for their behavior as members of a group. Sherry Marts 10/28/2013

There is a certain comfort level to rubber stamp as you point out, Eugene. Sure, at times, that may be needed. While we may respectfully not agree with one another, or win a particular battle, so to speak – we can “get out there” for the group to hear and process. That is—only if the organization’s leaders allow open, (have) transparent discussions and do no squelch or micromanage it. Change is a slow process. Elaine Tselikis 11/1/ 2013

Comments continue to arrive, and I plan to update this report occasionally.

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