The Importance of Having Honest Conversations

Dear Kim,

I am the sole staff for a small literacy program in a suburb of Chicago.  We have a wonderful board except for one member who is new and is proving to be quite difficult.  We invited her on at the suggestion of our biggest donor. She is very critical, bossy, and constantly saying, “I don’t think Ellen (our big donor) will like this.”  Some of the board members have just stopped coming to meetings and the last meeting we didn’t have a quorum!  She has now volunteered to head up our year-end fundraising efforts.  She does give generously and seems to know a lot of people, who seem to like her.  What is it about us that brings out this side of her? We don’t want to offend our big donor, but we can’t go on like this and no one is going to want to work with her on fundraising, which is going to set off a new round of criticism.  

Feeling hopeless, but otherwise fine

Dear Hopeless,

I have been in several conferences recently where a keynote speaker begins by saying,  “XYZ issue is the biggest challenge facing our world.” It could be climate change, unemployment, rising income inequality, racism, human trafficking, etc.  So even though I am not a fan of saying, “The biggest thing…” since there are so many big things, I would certainly say that a major reason why organizations get into the situation you are in is our inability to have honest conversations. Here is what I would do: Start with the Quaker adage, “Assume good intent.” Assume she wants to be a good board member and she wants to be well thought of by you and the other board members.  She may be nervous and showing off.  The board chair and you can ask her to lunch and tell her that you know she means well, and has good ideas, but her way of expressing herself is driving people away.  Name specific examples, particularly of when she had a good idea that she expressed in such a difficult way that no one could hear it.  I know it will be hard, and she may not be at all receptive.  If she is not, then you can say, “The way you are reacting is making it hard to have this conversation.”  Stick to focusing on her process of communicating.  She may not act like she has heard you at all, but wait one more board meeting.  If she continues to act out,  the chair will have to ask her to leave.  If you are close to your biggest donor, you could consider asking her how well she knows this woman and if she has ever found her to be a little critical.  No matter how hard this conversation is, keep in mind it will be harder to let her stay on the board with no feedback.  

In a few months, when this is resolved one way or another, please invest in conflict resolution training.  That goes for all of you who are reading this who have difficult people in your organizations!

~Kim Klein