Dealing with a Quarreling Board of Directors

Question: Some people on our nonprofit board have bad manners at board meetings. A couple of them are always chatting together while someone else is making a point, this one person talks too much without saying anything, and others don’t say anything at all during the meeting, but wait until it’s over to stand out in the parking lot with a friend to say what she should have said in the meeting. I don’t feel like we’re getting anything done!

It sounds like your board needs some ground rules! Having a set of norms (a “behavior contract”) that your board follows encourages behaviors that will help it do its work, and discourages behaviors that interfere with a group’s effectiveness. Norms are the rules that govern how we interact with each other, how we conduct business, how we make decisions, how we communicate, even how we dress when we get together.

Norms fundamentally exist in a group whether we set them for ourselves or not. Consider your coworkers, your family or a group of your friends. Groups of people are constantly making unconscious rules of engagement for themselves, and these rules exist whether or not you acknowledge or formalize them. Writing norms helps to create groups that are able to have honest discussions that enable everyone to participate and be heard.

How to Create a Set of Norms for Your Board
In order to create a set of norms, a board has a couple of options:
1. A group can observe how things are already being done within the group and decide what works or doesn’t work within that framework.
2. A group can brainstorm all the ideal behaviors for groups, and refine them into a list everyone can agree on.

Norms Work Best If…
1. Stated in the Positive—they identify what you DO want.
2. Stated in the present tense—as if you are already doing them.
3. Written by the people who will be using them.

Creating Norms
Norms generally fall into 4 different categories:

Answers the questions…
• What are the rules of attendance and punctuality?
• What are the roles of the individual members of the board?

Answers the questions…
• How do we speak and listen to each other?
• How will we deal with the agenda?

Answers the questions…
• How will we make decisions together?
• How will we deal with differences of opinion?

Follow Through
Answers the questions…
• What are someone’s responsibilities once he/she has accepted an assignment?
• How will decisions be supported once they are made?