Warning Signs of a Toxic or Dysfunctional Board

I’m currently not serving on a board, but hope to again at some point in the future. Since the first time I served on a board, I have done a lot of reading, studying (which included taking a Board Governance class), talking with others who are either serve or served on a board,  and I’ve learned a thing or two since those early first days of board service.

Here are some warning signs of a toxic and or dysfunctional board. They are in no particular order of importance, yet they all matter.

  1. How is the board’s relationships with its key leader(s)? Toxic alert warnings should be abounding if boards are not getting along with their key leader(s) and are talking about them in negative ways instead of talking to them to find solutions and ways to come together. If a board and their CEO (or whatever title is used for the key leader) are not actively working alongside each other and respecting each others roles, it will be felt in the entire organization. It takes high levels of humility from both sides to work together, and it can be done.
  2. How effective is the Board Chair? The role of a chair directly ties into how effective the board can and will be.  “As the president or executive director is the public face of the organization, the chair is the public face of the board. When he or she speaks or acts with the conferred power of the board, the credibility of the organization is on the line.” (David L. McKenna, Call of the Chair, 11. Unhealthy chair equals a toxic board. It is vitally important that a chair is carefully selected for the leadership abilities and character that they bring to the role. Take care in selecting the right chair. (I think that last line rhymed.)
  3. When the board speaks, is it speaking as one voice?  “Good boards contain and accommodate a diversity of perspectives and thoughts. They give time and respect to individual differences, and they are rewarded with a message that the board as a whole can support. Although there may be discussion, even vociferous debate, of competing viewpoints in a board meeting, when the board finally speaks to an issue in the form of policy, it should speak with one voice.” (Frederic L. Laughlin and Robert C. Andringa, Good Governance for NonProfits, 26.) When board members are not speaking with one voice they are in a dysfunctional pattern and should be considered toxic.
  4. Are there sound board processes that empower the board to thrive? If processes are not clearly understood by all and are not able to be easily found, referenced, and followed, it throws a board into chaos and things can quickly degenerate. John Carver rightly advises “that taking time to design a sound board process, before the process becomes personalized is the greatest safeguard against the debilitating effects of unfortunate interpersonal dynamics. The only other preventative measure that comes close is to ensure that all board members are intelligent, communicative, assertive, and mentally healthy” (John Carver, Boards that Make a Difference, 136.)
  5. Is there good communication and transparency from the board?  Boards have a hard job to do together, and for many of us, serving on a board is something we do in addition to our day job. However, we can never lose sight of the fact that we were elected to give leadership and thus have a responsibility to be effectively and regularly communicating with those who have entrusted leadership to us. Also, something else to be aware of,  if boards are spending more time in-camera than out – there is a problem. That said, in-camera sessions do matter; here is a great blog post to read that speaks to why they’re important.
  6. Lack of trust, confidentiality, respect, power struggles and nonparticipation of board members are all warning signs that a board is toxic. I couldn’t figure out how to make this a question (it’s late) so I made it as strong a statement as I could. If any of the above is happening it needs to be dealt with – this is why choosing a qualified chair matters! The role of the chair is to manage the board members, call us all to a higher standard, and to deal with issues head on so as to keep the entire board healthy. I think health can also be achieved by setting criteria for board members and allowing a board to recruit qualified people (accountability/policy must be in place for this) to ensure there are diverse gifts present. Health can also be attained by having ongoing board development so as to grow the capacity and health of the board. It is also imperative that a board use their allocated resources to hire consultants or other experts, as needed.

Though this list is not exhaustive, I hope it gives you enough food for thought and possibly even makes for some good discussion points among those of you considering being on a board.

Board work matters – and we need healthy boards.

Have a great weekend.


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