“Hello? Anybody home? … Think, McFly! Think!” Most of us remember that classic scene in Back to the Future where quintessential bully, Biff Tannen, raps his knuckles on the head of his favorite target, the ultra-geek, George McFly.
Bullies are not just found in 80s movies (though let’s be honest, some pretty iconic ones are—no one sweeps a leg quite like Johnny) or on the school yard; they populate roads, bars, offices, and even nonprofit board rooms. Anyone who has served at a nonprofit organization can attest that most organizations have at least one bully. Maybe it’s a board member or maybe it’s a staff member, but we all know the type: that member who railroads conversations, sends malicious, underhanded emails, berates other people, or treats team members inequitably.
These behaviors might seem like the actions of those scripted villains we love to hate, but sadly they are real-life examples of what behavior can be cultivated and perpetuated when an organization lacks proper leadership practices.
What? You didn’t realize YOU created this bully? Here are the ways that lackluster leadership empowers the nonprofit bully.
1. You don’t have a code of conduct.
Now, you may be thinking, “Codes of conduct are pointless. We know how to behave; we don’t need a code of conduct.” You know who else thought that? The boys on the island in Lord of the Flies. And look how that turned out for them. It is a misguided assumption that people automatically know how to be a board member. As with any job, having a clearly defined list of expectations not only for what duties are to be performed but for what values the organization wants to foster through leadership, creates tangible benchmarks against which individual performance expectations can be enforced. It’s pretty hard to blame a bully, much less punish him, for breaking the rules when he never knew there were any.
PRO-TIP: Don’t have a code of conduct? Download a sample here. Turns out it takes more than calling your meetings to order with a conch shell to establish leadership and a culture of respect and accountability.
2. Nobody knows each other.
If we learned anything from the theme song to “Cheers,” it’s that “sometimes, you want to go where everybody knows your name.” And sure, it would be grand if that place was your local bar, but it’d be even better if it’s your office or boardroom. And even better still is having people not just know your name but learning more about you, your background and perspective. Because often times, disputes and hurt feelings are not a result of malicious intent, but rather a product of people simply not understanding each other. Ice-breakers and happy hours may seem frivolous, but giving your team opportunities to bond and get to know each other outside of the office or boardroom is essential to fostering healthier interactions inside of them. Because contrary to what the Cheers song says, people are not all the same.
PRO-TIP: For board engagements, consider including senior staff to help mitigate the potential “us vs. them” mentality. A more connected, happier, healthier team? We’ll drink to that!
3. You don’t have agendas (or don’t stick to them).
Anyone who has ever attempted to take an impromptu trip to Disneyland (on a Saturday. In June.) will tell you that this foolhardy endeavor only ends one way: in total and utter chaos. Waiting in lines for hours while fighting oppressive crowds, heat, and hunger will not only turn the “happiest place on earth” into hell on earth, it will transform even the best-natured children (and most patient parents) into the spawns of Satan. So, it’s not hard to see why a board meeting without a clear agenda leads not just to inefficiency, but for normally even temperaments to devolve into fits of frustration. A poorly run meeting is not just a waste of time, it’s potentially detrimental to the organization as lengthy debates over minutiae leave more important matters unaddressed or critical decisions rushed as time expires. Furthermore, lack of a clear agenda from leadership creates space for strong personalities to push their own agenda.
PRO-TIP: Consider using a consent agenda which will help streamline meetings and keep the focus on substantive issues.
4. You don’t have retreats.
“Treat yo self.” Popularized by the sitcom Parks and Rec, this catchphrase refers to an annual day devoted to “massages, mimosas, and leather goods” among other things. While characters Tom and Donna may have pampered themselves to hilarious excess, they were on to something vital: the importance of taking time to step out of your often-stressful routine in order to rejuvenate. Retreats provide a valuable, annual reset, getting everyone on track and on the same page without the need to point fingers at individuals. And just like busy couples need a date night or weekend away to reignite their passion for each other, leadership teams sometimes need a retreat to reignite their passion for their mission and a reminder of why they joined in the first place.
PRO-TIP: Retreats provide a great opportunity for socialization (see #2), but they’re also ideal for reviewing your strategic plan, setting goals and committees for the year, and providing fundraising training. Don’t have a retreat planned yet? Hire us and “Retreat yo self!” (sorry, leather goods not included.)
5. Some people are just jerks.
In Back to the Future, Biff’s whole trajectory changes once George finally stands up to him in the parking lot; Biff goes from tormenting George to submissively waxing his car. In a perfect world, bullies modify their behavior once the culture shifts and stops enabling them to continue their tyranny. But sadly, it’s not a perfect world. And some people are just not going to change their ways no matter what you do.
PRO-TIP: You can try assigning them their own tasks to reign over, hoping to redirect their negativity towards something productive. If all else fails, you may need to counsel or proactively remove them from the board or organization.