Board Dynamics: How To Deal With Difficult Board Members

Not all board members are created equal. Whilst the majority collaborate well with their peers, there are some that cause major disruptions in the boardroom. These negative behaviours can create a toxic environment, slow down critical progress, create conflict, and stifle creativity. In more serious cases, they can threaten to destabilise the board altogether. That is why addressing these issues quickly and constructively is so important.

Paddy Gray OBE spoke to our Dynamic Boards NED Community on this subject and started by identifying the most common types of power players you can expect to encounter in the boardroom at some point in your NED career.

The Dominator

Dominators are usually the loudest voice in the room. They need to always have the last word and are continuously trying to prove themselves. They dominate the narrative and don’t give others a chance to voice their opinions, which can silence quieter and more introverted group members from making important and valuable points. Their power play for control is the easiest to recognise.    

The Slacker

This disruptor type only attends meetings if it suits them, and when they do, they are often late. They rarely read the minutes and don’t tend to engage with agenda items. They coax along and have significant value on paper due to their talents, wealth and influence, but are not a team player. They may be on the board for other motives ie. for the credentials on their CV.

The Absentee

The one that doesn’t turn up to meetings, usually due to stretching themselves too thin with other responsibilities. When they do eventually show up, they tend to waste time raising points that were covered and resolved in previous meetings.

The Devil’s Advocate

This describes a Non-Executive Director that consistently argues every point and holds meetings back from progressing. They present challenges (for the sake of debate) and are disruptive by nature. 

The Factions

This is a person that strategically builds allies in a boardroom, leading to the formation of a separate group. Secret meetings are held and plots are hatched outside of the boardroom, creating a dangerous divide among the board. One dysfunctional member can sabotage a whole team.

So, what can Chairs do if faced with these different disruptors in the boardroom? Follow Gray’s tips below.

You can watch the full video here:

Deal With Issues As They Arise

The first point is around intervention and stopping negative behaviours in their tracks before they become a bigger problem. “See it, say it, stop it,” says Gray. He suggests requesting a face-to-face meeting with the board member in question to directly call out their bad behaviour and to try and establish why they are being disruptive. Having a one-to-one with the disruptor enables them to tell you their side of the story and can give you valuable insight into what is driving their behaviour in meetings. Everyone likes to feel listened to so it’s important to provide them with a safe environment to voice the concerns they have and explain any problems they are experiencing. The important thing here is to ensure that the moment you spot the problem, you look to put a stop to it. Don’t let problems fester.

Get To Know Your Team

In fact, doing 1-1s with each of your board members will give you the chance to understand how the general mood is among the team, get to know their individual likes and dislikes and ensure each person feels acknowledged and appreciated. This can prevent disruptive behaviour from rearing its head in the first place. “I tend to like to do all of the appraisals when I’m Chair because you find out what people need, where they are lacking and any training that can benefit them,” says Gray. Getting to know each of the personalities around the boardroom table will help you to identify and resolve problems more easily and quickly when they arise.

Get Everyone On The Same Page

“At every single meeting I remind people of the codes of conduct. I try to ensure that these are clearly on the wall where we have our meetings, along with the mission and values of the company,” says Gray. This helps to re-focus board members on what is expected from them in their role. It also takes the spotlight off the board dynamics and unites everyone on the shared values and objectives of the organisation. Establishing boundaries and expectations is essential. Afterall, there is less likely to be conflict, confusion or resentment when everyone is clear on the goals and their role in achieving them.

Ensure Everyone Has A Voice

“Building a culture of trust is really important,” says Gray. Getting the balance between being assertive and inclusive is key. One way to do this is to make sure that everyone feels safe in the boardroom to share their views, knowing that they will be considered and respected. A good Chair will manage and facilitate the conversations between the board members so that people are empowered to voice their thoughts but not to take over the conversation altogether. The Chair must be prepared to shut down conversations in a diplomatic and tactful manner and steer the board through the agenda. Having a boardroom that encourages open dialogue will reduce the risk of factions forming and help the more introverted members to find their voices.

Join our free NED Community

Are you on a UK board in a Non-Exec capacity and want to learn more about topics like this? If so, join our free NED Community! We host monthly online meet-ups where we hear from experts (like Stephen Mitcham in this article) and allow time for peer-to-peer support between Non-Execs. If you want to become a more thoughtful and effective board member, register here.

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