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Bullies on Board

"Nothing can prepare you for working with a sociopathic serial bully. It is the most devastating, draining, misunderstood, and ultimately futile experience imaginable." -Tim Field

I have written before about bosses who bully their employees and workers who bully their coworkers; without question, bullying is a growing threat in the corporate workplace. But there's another business environment in which breed: the nonprofit boardroom. And more often than not, in charitable organizations the victim of board bullying is the agency's executive director.

In my role as a leadership trainer, I often speak to nonprofit boards about their fiduciary responsibilities. To my surprise, countless executive directors have pulled me aside and described being bullied by one or more of their board members. And as an experienced board member myself, I've witnessed the harassing behavior firsthand. So, I've been reading up on what make bullies tick.

I'm convinced that the nonprofit bully's ultimate goals are to chair the board, gain total control, and influence every decision. Accordingly, bullies begin maneuvering for power soon after joining the board. They start by publicly attacking the person with the most knowledge about the organization and the person with the most to lose by fighting back—in other words, the executive director. They hope to gain credibility with other board members by criticizing the wisdom of the executive director, and they count on their fellow trustees assuming that the executive director's silence validates the criticism.

Bullies thrive on this deliberate confrontation. Let's face it: most boards fail to address the bully's confrontational behavior in order to avoid, well, confrontation. Therefore, the easiest way for a bully to get power is to be confrontational. So, bullies second-guess the executive director, make unreasonable work demands, set impossible deadlines, and leave the director out of important conversations. And in that selfish quest for power, the bully sabotages the charity's mission.

Boards that tolerate bullying create hostile work environments for their executive directors. Agency heads who remain silent out of fear of losing their jobs are considered weak or incompetent; those who speak up to defend themselves are accused of insubordination. Board members who are unwilling to confront their bullying colleagues are guilty of condoning the behavior.

One final thought. In my experience, when board members band together against bullies, the offenders get frustrated and leave.


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I couldn't agree more. I've just spent two days telling 6th graders that the secret to getting rid of bullying is for the people observing it happen to stand up.

The secret to the success of bullies is that no-one steps up. They are left to do whatever they want to the person being bullied because the bystanders are too scared or don't think it's their place, or figure people should stand up for themselves.

Bullies run away when they're confronted by other people.

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