Dealing with difficult Committee of Management members
In this help sheet, the term 'Committee of Management' (COM) is used but it is intended to apply to whatever governance structure your group has, such as a Board. The term "CEO" (Chief Executive Officer) is used but it is intended to apply to whatever name your group has for its head person (coordinator, general manager, chief executive, executive director etc.).
Most experienced Committee of Management (COM) 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 COM 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 COM'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 COM 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.
1: The Dominator
The Symptoms: One person dominates debates and discussions, often talking over other COM members or shouting to make their view heard above all others. Other COM 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 COM.
- If you have a good relationship with the COM member, arrange to meet him/her informally to talk about the problem. If you are not comfortable doing this, ask the COM 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 COM 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 the Chair.
2: The Non-contributor
The Symptoms:The non-contributor may be present and even active during COM 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.
- Make sure that all COM 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 COM 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 group'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 COM, ask them to offer solutions to fix the problem.
3: The Absentee
The Symptoms: The Absentee does not often attend COM meetings. In fact, he or she does not take part in many COM 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 COM member is to attend meetings; after all, it is here that important decisions are made and directions are decided. Ensure all COM members are aware of their responsibility to attend 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.
- 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.
4: The Silent Party
The Symptoms: The Silent Party rarely if ever contributes to discussions or debates and never volunteers for between-meeting tasks.
- The Chair can encourage a greater contribution by asking the member for their opinion during meetings and discussions. If the Silent Party is merely shy or uncomfortable about voicing his or her opinion, a direct approach might help to bring them out of their shell. Similarly, Silent Parties might be more than happy to take on COM tasks but could be unwilling to push themselves forward - asking them directly if they will do this or that might encourage a greater contribution.
- Ensure all members are aware of their legal duty to contribute to COM decisions, and point out that just turning up is not enough to fulfill this duty.
5: The Empire Builder
The Symptoms: These COM members can be a real worry as they appear less interested in the group they are helping to lead 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 COM 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 COM's ethics and conflict of interest policies, and that all personal or business interests are lodged on the COM's "Interest Register".
- Ensure you have a rigorous COM member selection and recruitment process in place so that all potential COM members are given equal treatment and selected on their merits, rather than "who they know".
6: The White-Anter
The Symptoms: Sometimes it seems like this COM 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 COM s/he has not voted for. The White-Anter regularly disrupts meetings with tantrums and walk-outs and bad-mouths the COM to outside influences including the media.
- Ensure that all COM 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 COM of unfair or improper decision-making.
- Make sure all COM 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 COM may need to consider some long-term strategies that could include having this COM member removed.
7: The Bore
The Symptoms: 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 the first time. Despite the tiresome monologues, the Bore is often a nice person and colleagues are usually unwilling to offend them by directly confronting the problem.
8: The Dinosaur
The Symptoms: This person has served on the COM for what seems like forever. While the other COM 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 "staleness" within the COM.
- A good mix of youth and experience never goes astray on a community group COM. However, a regular turnover and injection of new ideas is also good for a COM's long-term prospects. Initiate a discussion about the possibility of putting in place term limits, stipulating that COM members can only serve for a certain number of consecutive years or terms. This will ensure a regular turnover of members.
Finding the Long-Term Antidote
Difficult COM members can present a real challenge to the cohesiveness and effectiveness of a COM. While it is possible to merely try to wait out the problem - i.e. put up with the difficult COM member in the hopes that they will mend their ways or leave the COM 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 COM culture and impeding the COM's duty to function as a team.
In general, all COM 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 COM should also put in place long-term structural measures to ensure that problems are prevented from occurring in the first place.
- Ensure you have a good COM 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.
- An effective orientation program should also be put in place to ensure that all new COM members are aware of all their responsibilities, including their duty to contribute and their duty to operate as part of a team. 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 COM members by offering them a place on a committee before they are offered a seat on the full COM. This will allow the COM to see prospective candidates in action, and hopefully uncover any problems early.
- Put in place a COM Development Committee or a Peer Review System to allow for regular assessment of the performance of COM 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 COM 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 COM leaders on a course to help develop their dispute resolution and leadership skills.
- Give COM 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 COM deliberations.
- Review your meeting procedures to ensure that they provide the best possible opportunity for full and frank contributions by every member of the COM. 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.
- Put in place a process to allow COM 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, COM members who feel the organisation is heading in the wrong direction) early on and take action to minimise any impacts that might result.
- Consider putting in place term limits for COM members. This will ensure that troublesome COM members will have to depart eventually. The downside of this approach, of course, is that good COM 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 COM members generally outweigh the negatives.
- Think about whether your COM 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 COM member who is temporarily unable to give their COM duties his/her full attention. Put a strict time limit on the absence and reassess the situation when the time expires.
- In very rare and extreme circumstances, the COM might have to consider removing a troublesome member. Your COM's rules, constitution or bylaws should detail procedures for removal of members; often it involves a two-thirds vote by COM 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 individual concerned, the COM, and the group as a whole.