How to Manage a Difficult Board Member

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How to Manage a Difficult Board Member

Navigating the complexities of board governance can be challenging, especially when it involves managing a difficult board member. As an emerging leader, understanding the intricacies of executive team dynamics and mastering the art of diplomacy and strategic influence are crucial. This article will delve into effective strategies for managing difficult board members, supported by relevant research and expert opinions. By the end, you’ll have a toolkit of practical approaches to maintain a cohesive and effective board.

three men sitting while using laptops and watching man beside whiteboard

Understanding the Dynamics of Board Governance

Board governance involves a delicate balance of power, responsibility, and accountability. Each board member brings unique perspectives and expertise, which can be both an asset and a challenge. Difficult board members can disrupt this balance, leading to conflict and inefficiency. Understanding the underlying dynamics is the first step in managing such situations. This includes recognizing the formal and informal power structures that exist within the board and how they influence decision-making.

The Role of Board Members

Board members are tasked with providing strategic direction, oversight, and governance for an organization. Their roles encompass fiduciary responsibilities, ensuring the organization’s financial health, compliance with regulations, and alignment with its mission and vision. However, divergent viewpoints and conflicting interests can lead to friction, necessitating adept management skills. In addition, board members often have to balance their personal or professional interests with their duties, which can sometimes lead to conflicts of interest.

Furthermore, board members must also act as ambassadors for the organization, representing its interests to stakeholders and the broader community. This means they need to be well-versed in the organization’s strategic objectives and operational challenges. Ensuring that board members are aligned with the organization’s mission and goals is essential for fostering a united front.

Identifying Difficult Board Members

Difficult board members can manifest in various ways: disruptive behavior, dominating discussions, resisting change, or undermining collective decisions. Recognizing these traits early is essential for timely intervention and effective management. Some common signs include consistently challenging the majority opinion without constructive input, showing a lack of respect for other members, and engaging in side conversations that derail meetings.

It’s also important to understand the root causes of these behaviors. In some cases, a difficult board member may simply lack understanding or feel undervalued, which can lead to disruptive actions. By identifying and addressing these underlying issues, you can take steps to mitigate their impact on the board’s functioning.

Strategies for Managing Difficult Board Members

Establish Clear Expectations and Roles

Clarity is paramount in board governance. Establishing clear expectations and delineating roles can mitigate misunderstandings and conflicts. Ensure that each board member understands their responsibilities and the collective goals of the board. Regularly revisit and reinforce these expectations to maintain alignment. This can be achieved through well-drafted bylaws, governance policies, and regular training sessions.

Additionally, having a comprehensive onboarding process for new board members can set the tone for their tenure. This process should include an overview of the board’s structure, roles, and expectations, as well as a review of the organization’s strategic plan and key issues. By setting clear expectations from the outset, you can help prevent misunderstandings and conflicts later on.

Foster Open Communication

Open and transparent communication is the cornerstone of effective board governance. Encourage a culture where board members feel comfortable expressing their opinions and concerns. Facilitate constructive dialogue by actively listening and addressing issues promptly. This approach not only resolves conflicts but also builds trust and mutual respect among board members.

Creating an environment where open communication is the norm can be challenging but highly rewarding. Regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings between the chairperson and individual board members can help address concerns before they escalate. Additionally, workshops and retreats focused on team-building and effective communication can strengthen the board’s cohesiveness.

Leverage the Power of Diplomacy

Diplomacy is an indispensable skill in managing difficult board members. Approach conflicts with tact and professionalism, focusing on the issue rather than the individual. Employ strategies such as mediation and negotiation to find common ground and foster collaboration. Remember, the goal is to achieve consensus and maintain a cohesive board.

It’s also useful to cultivate emotional intelligence, which involves being aware of and managing your own emotions while understanding and influencing the emotions of others. This can help in de-escalating tensions and facilitating more productive discussions. Diplomatic language, active listening, and empathy are key components of this approach.

Utilize Expert Opinions and Research

Incorporating expert opinions and relevant research can lend credibility to your arguments and facilitate informed decision-making. For instance, studies have shown that diverse boards tend to be more effective, as they bring varied perspectives and expertise. Leverage such insights to highlight the importance of unity and collaborative decision-making.

Expert opinions can also serve as neutral ground in contentious discussions. Bringing in external consultants or facilitators for particularly challenging issues can provide an unbiased perspective that helps the board reach a consensus. This approach not only reinforces the importance of evidence-based decision-making but also underscores the value of continuous learning and adaptation.

Implement Structured Decision-Making Processes

Structured decision-making processes can help mitigate the influence of difficult board members. Adopt methodologies such as the Delphi technique or consensus-building frameworks to ensure that decisions are based on collective input and objective criteria. This approach minimizes the risk of individual biases and promotes a balanced and democratic decision-making process.

Incorporating tools like SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) can also provide a structured format for evaluating decisions. Regularly reviewing and updating these processes ensures they remain effective and aligned with the board’s evolving needs. Structured decision-making not only helps in managing difficult board members but also enhances the overall efficiency and effectiveness of the board.

Practical Examples and Case Studies

Case Study: Managing a Dominant Board Member

Consider the case of a dominant board member who monopolizes discussions and undermines collective decisions. To manage this situation, the board chairperson implemented a structured agenda and time limits for each discussion point. This approach ensured that all board members had the opportunity to contribute, fostering a more inclusive and balanced decision-making process. Additionally, the chairperson scheduled a private meeting with the dominant member to discuss the importance of equitable participation.

The chairperson also introduced a ’round-robin’ discussion method where each board member was given a set time to voice their opinions. This not only limited the dominant member’s ability to monopolize the discussion but also encouraged quieter members to participate more actively. The outcome was a more balanced and inclusive board dynamic that enhanced the quality of decision-making.

Case Study: Addressing Resistance to Change

In another scenario, a board member consistently resisted strategic changes proposed by the executive team. The board chairperson facilitated a series of workshops to educate board members on the rationale behind the proposed changes, supported by relevant research and expert opinions. This initiative not only addressed the concerns of the resistant board member but also garnered broader support for the strategic initiatives.

The chairperson also encouraged open forums where board members could voice their concerns and ask questions about the proposed changes. By providing a platform for open dialogue and education, the resistant member’s concerns were addressed in a constructive manner. This approach not only mitigated resistance but also fostered a culture of continuous learning and adaptation within the board.

Leveraging Technology for Effective Board Governance

Technology can be a powerful ally in managing difficult board members and enhancing overall board governance. Tools such as board management software streamline communication, document sharing, and decision-making processes. These platforms provide a centralized repository for board materials, ensuring that all members have access to the same information and reducing the potential for misunderstandings.

Additionally, technology can facilitate virtual meetings, making it easier for geographically dispersed board members to participate fully. Features such as real-time collaboration tools, secure voting systems, and performance analytics can further enhance the effectiveness of board governance. By leveraging technology, boards can operate more efficiently and transparently.

Benefits of Board Management Software

  • Enhanced Communication: Facilitates real-time communication and collaboration among board members.
  • Document Management: Provides a centralized platform for storing and accessing board documents, ensuring consistency and transparency.
  • Decision-Making Tools: Offers features such as voting and polling to streamline decision-making processes.
  • Performance Tracking: Enables tracking of board member performance and engagement, facilitating timely interventions if issues arise.

In addition to these benefits, board management software often includes features for scheduling and agenda setting, which can help in managing meeting logistics more effectively. The ability to archive past meetings and decisions also ensures that there is a clear record, which can be invaluable for future reference and accountability.

The Role of the Board Chairperson

The board chairperson plays a pivotal role in managing difficult board members. Their responsibilities include facilitating meetings, ensuring adherence to governance principles, and mediating conflicts. An effective chairperson possesses strong leadership, communication, and diplomatic skills, enabling them to navigate complex board dynamics and foster a cohesive board culture.

The chairperson also acts as the liaison between the board and the executive team, ensuring that there is clear communication and alignment on strategic objectives. This role requires a deep understanding of both the board’s dynamics and the organization’s goals. By bridging these two areas, the chairperson can help guide the board toward effective governance and decision-making.

Key Responsibilities of the Chairperson

  • Meeting Facilitation: Ensures that meetings are productive, inclusive, and adhere to the agenda.
  • Conflict Mediation: Addresses conflicts promptly and impartially, fostering a culture of respect and collaboration.
  • Governance Oversight: Ensures that board members adhere to governance principles and fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities.
  • Mentorship and Support: Provides mentorship and support to board members, particularly those who may be struggling with their roles or responsibilities.

In addition, the chairperson is often responsible for conducting performance evaluations of board members and the board as a whole. This includes setting performance metrics and providing feedback to ensure continuous improvement. By fulfilling these responsibilities effectively, the chairperson can significantly enhance the board’s overall effectiveness and cohesion.


Managing a difficult board member is undoubtedly challenging, but with the right strategies and tools, it is possible to navigate these complexities effectively. By establishing clear expectations, fostering open communication, leveraging diplomacy, and utilizing technology, emerging leaders can enhance their leadership skills and master the art of board governance. Remember, the goal is to create a cohesive and effective board that drives the organization’s success.

Incorporating expert opinions and relevant research can further bolster your approach, ensuring that your strategies are grounded in best practices and empirical evidence. As you continue to develop your leadership capabilities, remember that effective board governance is a journey, not a destination. Embrace the challenges, learn from each experience, and strive for continuous improvement.

By mastering the intricacies of board governance and executive team dynamics, you will be well-equipped to navigate the complexities of leadership and drive your organization toward sustained success.

Further Reading

For those interested in deepening their understanding of board governance and executive leadership, consider the following resources:

  • Books:”Boards That Lead: When to Take Charge, When to Partner, and When to Stay Out of the Way” by Ram Charan, Dennis Carey, and Michael Useem”The Handbook of Board Governance: A Comprehensive Guide for Public, Private, and Not-for-Profit Board Members” by Richard Leblanc