A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Is Bullying Part of Your Board Meetings?

You won’t find bullies on every board, but, when you do, they can be very disruptive—creating surprisingly high levels of stress for fellow board members and damaging the integrity, effectiveness, and impact of the board’s work.

Be careful not to assume the other party to any difficult conversation is a bully. Some people engage in bullying behavior only in certain situations, such as on the board but not at home. Others have developed a strong, regular habit that permeates all their relationships. In either case, if you find yourself face-to-face with someone who is bullying you or others on your board, use your recognition of the behavior as a first step toward managing your response and helping your board thrive.

Recognize a Bully

Although some bullies have low self-esteem, most have a combination of high self-esteem and deep shame; they use aggression to distract others from aspects of themselves they don’t want others to see.

Power is another key motivation for bullies. As they work to achieve power, they can be charming to people who are above them or allies they believe will help in their climb—even  while simultaneously undercutting other board members. This makes it difficult for the bully’s victim(s) to have clout if they speak out about the experience. Bullies also need to always be right—because if they are found to be wrong once, they fear they could be found to be wrong again—and they can’t afford to be wrong.

On boards, bullying tactics may be used to make other people take on heavy workloads or feel subordinate, or undercut others’ credibility. Depending on the bully, he or she might engage in the following behaviors:

  • Dominate one-on-one conversations by being loud, interrupting, or criticizing
  • Talk over other people to prevent the group from hearing different perspectives
  • Use anger and aggression to assert their opinions
  • Mock or undercut people who don’t agree with them
  • Manipulate or use controlling or authoritarian behaviors
  • Misinterpret people’s behavior toward them as hostile
  • Employ other destructive behaviors

Bullies have learned that hurtful behaviors “work,” even if only in the short term, and even if they cause damage along the way.

Don’t Play the Game

Take heart! It is possible for bullies or situations to change. 

Set an empowering goal

First, take responsibility for what you can do to improve the situation. Start by setting positive, aspirational goal that is bigger than the individuals involved. This will create new possibilities rather than focusing on what’s wrong. Examples are “To create a healthy, functioning board so that our foundation’s grantmaking will make a bigger difference in the community” or “To create an environment in which board members and staff can enjoy working with the organization.”

Bring empathy to the situation

Remember the person behind the bullying behavior. You never have to agree with bad behavior, but empathy makes it possible for you to unlock and transform the situation. The bully’s behavior is not a response to you or any other board member personally. Instead, it is triggered by how he or she sees the world, which is a result of painful things that happened in the past.

Don’t be confrontational

Some resources recommend “standing up” to bullies in ways that reprimand, contradict, or even shame them. I don’t agree. The bully is, presumably, more skilled than you in nasty fighting tactics. Escalating the battle will result in you or others being hurt worse.

Don’t play the victim

Behaving like the victim keeps everything in place: the bully’s behavior and your feeling of being stuck, helpless, and possibly even in pain. Instead, try to find ways to respond that are neither playing the role of victim nor being confrontational. In difficult situations, this can take a lot of imagination! It might help to talk with someone else about this, but try to find someone who will help you brainstorm creative solutions, not someone who just encourages you to get angry.

Additional Tips for a Successful, Creative Response 

  • Anticipate when the bully is laying his or her trap and disrupt the behavior by doing something different. For example, if the bully regularly criticizes you for being unprepared at meetings, bring materials to distribute before the meeting starts.
  • Show minimal emotional reaction whenever possible. If you do react emotionally, frame your reaction in light of your surprise at what happened and affirm your commitment to the foundation’s goals.
  • Help others who are being bullied. Support them in not playing the victim.
  • Build the board in other ways. Bringing on new board members, updating or implementing new policies, and building strong consensus around positive organizational goals can shift the power away from the bully without needing to shut him or her down completely.
  • Work within your role at the foundation to improve the situation.
  • Say goodbye. If your bully cannot be swayed by healthy dynamics, then it may be time to remove the bully from the board (if governing documents allow such removal). Alternatively, if the bully cannot be removed and his or her behavior is affecting your mental health, the best solution might be to take care of yourself and step off the board.

Finally, remember that even the most entrenched situation can be transformed in the blink of an eye. You can help find a solution that makes your life better, your board a better place to be, and your organization an even more positive force for good.

Senior Program Director Ruth Masterson works closely with members to create written materials and training curricula, and answers member questions on foundation administration, governance, boards, and tax and legal topics. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Ruth served nonprofits in her work at Adler & Colvin, the Council on Foundations, Build Community Arts Center, and San Francisco BayKeeper.

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