Are you dealing with a difficult or toxic board member? It’s the person who expects his opinion and vast experience to outweigh everyone else’s voice. Or maybe the one who seems bent on creating drama and cannot be trusted to be straightforward in disagreements.In theory, boards are created to provide support, guidance, and oversight to ensure the well-being of an organization. The reality is that conflict-ridden boards and members who dissent from the greater good to pursue personal gain serve as a distraction to the executive team.One can quickly become consumed with navigating the politics and soothing hurt feelings rather than pursuing the business at hand.Here are some tips on how to cope with a difficult board member who sucks all the positivity out of the room.
  1. Ensure that your board meeting agenda and proceedings make it difficult for any single person to hog vast amounts of floor time. If you have a group norm of saying, “this is what we need to move through today” and a person who is responsible for keeping the team on track, it’s slightly easier to navigate Big-Mouth Barry.
 
  1. Ensure that there is alignment between the Chair, CEO, Governance Committee, and a few other allies about what constitutes acceptable behavior. The alignment makes it difficult for any one person to be the target of retribution from the misbehaving board member. Additionally, the moral support and strategic impact of a group effort keeps the burden from being on one person and moves the situation more quickly.
 
  1. DO NOT ENGAGE in a 1:1 conversation with the toxic board member to try to solve the problem. A toxic person can quickly twist the content of a 1:1 conversation to support his/her purposes or to create doubt about you. This tip is especially true if you are the CEO. You don’t want to make yourself vulnerable in an individual conversation in which your words are used out of context and you are left justifying them to everyone else.
 
  1. Use the group to shut down toxicity. Toxicity is like fire—it needs oxygen to spread. In human dynamics, oxygen is time and attention. Most well-intended humans pay extra attention to the squeaky wheel. It’s natural. We want to keep the peace, we’re intimidated by the loose cannons (hard to admit that though), and we want approval from people who are difficult to please. The problem with this human tendency is that we end up feeding the behavior we don’t want, and we starve the good behavior that already exists. What are the specific tactics?

Tactics:

Praise positive behavior in the board meeting.

“I’d like to give a shout out to Supportive Sally who always finds the positives in difficult situations.”

“I’d like to thank Respectful Robert. He does such a great job of pointing out the gaps in our strategy while remaining positive and supportive of our mission.”

Rationale:

a. Even toxic people want validation. When you give attention to positive behavior, the toxic person is more likely to shift course to get the recognition he/she craves.

b. Supporting prosocial behavior rewards the great board members’ behavior. Board members may start doing this with each other, and it builds a board culture that makes the productive and positive people feel valued, while the toxic person gets squeezed out.

 
  1. Call out the toxic person’s innuendos. Some toxicity is straightforward and easily identifiable. For example, a person may be abrasive and insulting to other people. However, some toxicity happens around the edges. A person gossips or says things that can be taken in two different ways. The toxicity that happens “around the edges” is more difficult to confront because calling out one comment without context, sounds silly. However, it’s the string of comments or actions that create the toxicity. You can fight this by innocently inquiring about the comment. “Hey Manipulative Martin, it seems that you had a concern on_____. Can you help us understand?” Essentially, you want to set up a dynamic that if people do phone calls, emails or side commentary to stir up trouble, it’s going to be taken seriously.
 
  1. Figure out if the board person is annoying or creating risk. While I would argue that any toxic behavior creates risk, the risk still ranges from creating distraction to materially impacting the success of an organization. In many cases board members can’t be ousted without significant blowback, but exposing unethical behavior can be enough to force a resignation.
 Finally, do a post-mortem on the process and blind spots that allowed the toxic individual on the board. The most common omission of human decision-making is the failure to ask “how did we get here?” A full debrief allows us to assess the human and process variables that led to a negative outcome. When you add this critical component to your decision-making process, you can significantly lower the chances of future similar mistakes.