10 Question You’ll Hear When There is Conflict Between the Board & The Executive Director. And 20 Things That Can Be Done to Address It.

Board/Executive Director Tensions

This article was originally published on July 27, 2015, and has been updated.

In any traditional workplace, some level of conflict or tension is bound to arise at some point. Often, this workplace conflict occurs between the board of directors and the executive director.

It should be no surprise that when power is shared there is tension – and the board of directors’ oversight role brings a level of tension to the board/executive director relationship because of the fundamental sharing of power at its core.

There are no firm guidelines about where board oversight leaves off, and executive management begins. And in this grey area, struggles for power and authority naturally emerge.

But I would say that 99 times out of 100 the workplace conflict that arises between the board of director and the executive director boils down to a simple question:

Who is ultimately in charge here?

The power struggle and conflict between the board of directors and the executive director is a representation of this question being answered, as one body may ultimately prevail in the decision making process.

This process doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may have been in the past. There are plenty of tools for handling the conflict between the board and the executive director to maintain or establish a peaceful and productive workplace.

To help begin the process of resolving workplace tension, these are some of the questions whose answers will bring some clarity to the situation.

What does it look and sound like when these natural tensions become unhealthy?

  1. When workplace tension becomes unhealthy, the members of the board might start saying to themselves:
  • The executive director gets so defensive when I ask her for something.
  • The executive director won’t let us exercise proper fiscal oversight.
  • The first I heard about our funding cuts was in the newspaper.
  • The executive director doesn’t recognize my authority.
  • I’m not sure the executive director is right for the job, but I don’t want to say anything that would offend him.

The Executive Director’s Perspective

  1. Or, the Executive Director starts saying to themselves:
  • The board is questioning everything I do.
  • I can’t even order stationery without the board wanting to get involved.
  • I don’t want the board breathing down my neck when things are so tough right now.
  • The board chair doesn’t recognize my authority.
  • The board doesn’t trust me.

Why is There Tension in the First Place?

I wrote about much of this in the first two posts of this series: What Matters Most! 2 things you can do to stop sucking the life out of your Board of Directors and four things you can do not to be bored by your board experience!

But to summarize, that tension is caused by:

  1. Lack of information or clarity about roles and tasks.
  2. Change
    • Board and executive director roles shift.
    • The needs of the organization have changed and/or are unclear.
  3. Board practices do not support their oversight work.
    • Board members lack focus.
    • There are no appropriate mechanisms for evaluating the executive director.
    • There is not a way to effectively communicate priorities and decisions from the board to the executive director.
  4. Incompatible assumptions and styles.
    • Some executive directors do not want to be held accountable by the board.
    • Board members behave in ways that make collaboration difficult.
    • Personalities clash.

Roles In Moving Forward When Managing Board/Executive Director Conflicts

As always, how you proceed will depend on the true cause of the tension(s).

What follows are some alternatives based on those causes:

1. Are you the board chair?

  • If you are part of the conflict with the executive director, assign another board member to take the lead on the situation and be willing to follow his/ her leadership.
  • If you think that the conflict is rooted in a poor understanding by board members of their role(s), propose a board self-assessment process.
  • If you think that the conflict is due to personalities, meet individually with the people involved to mirror your observations, and help to broker a relationship between the executive director and the board member(s) involved.
  • Get more information about executive director evaluation from outside sources, and propose a process back to the executive director and the board.
  • Initiate a strategic planning process to clarify where the organization is headed and what kind of leadership is needed to move it there.
  • Get help from a knowledgeable nonprofit professional or board member of another organization that has gone through something similar.

2. Are you on the executive or personnel committee?

  • Talk to the board chair and work with him or her to develop a solution.
  • Report your observations in executive session and work with other committee members to plan a way of addressing the issue.
  • Get help from a knowledgeable nonprofit professional or board member of another organization that has gone through something similar.
  • Get more information about executive director evaluation and propose a process back to the executive director and the board.

3. Are you a board member?

  • Talk to the board chair and work with him or her to develop a solution.
  • If you are not part of the conflict, talk to the executive director to see how s/he is experiencing the situation and develop a game plan for addressing what is going on.
  • Name what you are seeing at a board meeting to get people to acknowledge the tensions and start to find a way to work on them.
  • Get help from a knowledgeable nonprofit professional or board member of another organization that has gone through something similar.

4. Are you the executive director?

  • Talk to the board chair, particularly if s/he is not involved in the conflict, and ask him or her to speak with the board member(s) involved.
  • Give the board chair and other board leaders information about board roles, board self-evaluation, the difference between management and governance, conflict resolution and other materials that might help diffuse the tension.
  • Be sure to acknowledge positive board member activities and contributions publicly. Sometimes all people want is to be stroked a little.
  • Talk to a peer to see how they have handled a similar situation.
  • Talk to the board members involved from an objective, task-oriented perspective rather than a personalized, confrontational perspective, to see if a workable solution can be reached between you.
  • Make sure that you are giving people what they legitimately need to fulfill their governance responsibilities, including financial information, program performance information, and policies for internal controls and personnel.

How Outside Expertise Can Help

Here are some ways that consultants or other outsiders (including funders) can help to resolve a conflict situation. These outside professionals can:

  1. Assess the situation and have frank conversations with those involved in the role they have played in creating the conflict, and the role they must play in resolving the conflict.
  2. Coach the parties involved to help them develop a new perspective about (and more effective response to) the situation.
  3. Act as neutral mediators who work with the parties involved to sort through the issues until the real cause of the tension is identified, and to then help those involved come up with a plan to address those issues.
  4. Offer alternatives for addressing the issues and help people get past their “either-or” thinking.
  5. Defuse some of the tension by letting people vent and give their concerns a full airing.
  6. Change the nature of the conversation from accusations into productive questions about the needs of the organization.
  7. Facilitate meetings of the people involved to help them come to agreements.
  8. Educate the board about appropriate governance roles.
  9. Educate the executive director about how to work with the board.

What About the Cost?

Getting professional help to work through conflict usually takes money.

Although organizations are often reluctant to let their funders know that there are internal problems, many groups find that a long-term funder is willing to help a grantee secure the expertise they need to work through the situation. Funders feel that they have made an investment in the success of the organization and will sometimes step up in a crisis.

In fact, sometimes it is the funders themselves who call on the board and executive director to address underlying issues that they see as a threat to the future stability of the organization.

Putting it All Together

Now that we know some of the potential causes of workplace conflict between the board and the executive of the board, we can begin to address the tension. By asking specific questions to narrow in on the root of the tension, a path to resolution can be paved which will lead to a healthier and more productive work environment.