Bullies On The Board


By Dr. Randal Dick

The best governance models fold in the face of unrestrained board members who insist on behaving badly. Yet, when I polled a group of C-level execs and Directors, the majority stated that they contend with a bully or a manipulator on the board.
Jack and Suzy Welch put it this way, “Not to slam boards; on the whole, they add real value. But boards frequently tolerate troublesome performance from one or two of their own. It’s simply too time-consuming or impolitic to eradicate. And that is why too many boards, in both the public and private sectors, don’t make the contribution they should. To be clear, we’re not talking about board behavior that is criminal. With a few famous exceptions, boards will remove anyone who breaks the law. No, we’re referring to boardroom behaviors that are perfectly legal but perfectly destructive as well.”*
Bullies intimidate by manipulating leverage against fellow directors.  In Jack and Suzy Welch’s article “ Directors Who Don’t Deliver”, they defined the following forms of bad board behavior.

1.The Do Nothing   2.The White Flag   3. The Cabalist   4. The Meddler   5. The Pontificator 

     I would add one other and propose to add the label “Destructive Humor”. Laughter itself is not the leverage. It’s the passive-aggressive put down embedded in the humor or the distraction of people’s attention from someone’s issue that the jokester pugilist does not like. Everyone may laugh but inwardly they may also be slightly intimidated and less likely to take on this type of bully.
Jack and Suzy conclude their article by saying, “After all, nothing can keep a board on its best behavior but itself.” If a board grapples with its problem of “perfectly legal but perfectly destructive board member behavior”, I suggest two simple steps involving values and process.

  1. Values – The board needs to identify the handful of values it cares enough about to defend, and put them in writing for all to see. If the bully tries to manipulate a decision contrary to those values, it becomes obvious and relatively simple to address.
  1. Process — Decisions are the currency of the board. Therefore, the board should be very intentional about it’s process. This includes naming approaches that are destructive and out of bounds. Once in place this denies the manipulator a hiding place and sanctioning bad behavior is far less a painful relational issue. It becomes more of a judicial matter.

The conclusion of the group polled is that bullying is as much a problem on corporate and nonprofit boards as it is on the school ground, in politics or anywhere else.  Taking steps such as those proposed above shifts the leverage away from the offender to the board. In the end, after standing firm when the board’s resolve is inevitably tested, things generally settle down nicely and everybody is happier and more productive – sometimes even the bully.

[*] Welch, Jack and Suzy,  Directors Who Don’t Deliver Oct. 18, 2007   Bloomberg Business http://tiny.cc/xthk8x

Dr. Randal Dick will teach a session on board leadership during a Christian Nonprofit Leadership Academy course entitled “CCNL Leadership” for The Outcomes Conference, CLA Dallas 2016, April 19–21, 2016. OutcomesConference.org