Governance, Trustees, Leadership

When trustees become judge, jury and executioner

Take some time during Trustees' Week to reflect on your behaviour towards your chief executive and executive team. Talk to your fellow trustees about agreeing what appropriate behaviour looks like.

It’s Trustees’ week and all week we will see tweets from charities and their CEOs thanking and celebrating their trustees. And in many cases, of course, that thanks will be heartfelt and deserved.

But I can absolutely guarantee that behind some of those tweets of thanks and gratitude there will be those who are doing it through gritted teeth. Who often feel sick and anxious because they feel bullied or belittled by their board. Who dread trustee meetings because it feels like they’re on trial with the board as judge, jury and executioner.

I’ve seen it so often. Perfectly lovely human beings join a board and suddenly group psychology takes over and they start to behave more like members of a hostile gang than fellow travellers on the charity’s journey. Some of this is down to social conformity theory where the need to belong to the group takes over independence of thought. And before you exclaim hotly that you never do that – we ALL do it – including me.

I remember an instance of a board where the relationship between them and the Exec was very sticky. One of the trustees was really keen on a merger with another organisation and asked the Exec to put a proposal to the board. It was a good proposal. But the Board were in a bad mood (yep – we’ve all seen that) and when it came to it they all voted against it, including, shockingly, the trustee who had asked for the proposal to be made.

After the meeting she said privately to the Exec, ‘I’m sorry I voted against it – but I didn’t want the rest of the board to think I was on your side not theirs’. Appalling, right?  And we can all have opinions about the integrity of her behaviour – but clearly she also felt bullied otherwise she would have had the courage of her convictions.

Never, ever forget that when there are several of you and only one of them you can bully simply by sheer weight of numbers.  The relationship is unbalanced and you need to work on balancing it.  And by all means ask them what they think of you all.  But they’ll probably fib and say you’re great.  You can sack them remember.

Here’s the thing. The bullying and bad behaviour is often not loud shouting or slamming fists on tables (although we’ve all seen that too).  It’s often more subtle and corrosive than that. Passive aggressive behaviour such as hostile, patronising tones in questions; openly dismissive of Exec input; exchanging ‘knowing’ glances with other trustees; not intervening or standing up for the Exec when fellow trustees are behaving badly.

So, take some time during Trustees’ week to reflect on your behaviour towards your CEO and Exec Team. Talk to your fellow trustees about agreeing what appropriate behaviour looks like. Be honest with yourself: does your behaviour help them to shine or make them cry? When they thank you this week can you hand on heart say that you deserve it?

This article was originally published on the Third Sector website