Dealing with Jerks on your Boards and Committees

If you serve on your association’s board of directors, or participate in any organizational committees, sooner or later you will run into a jerk. You know the kind of person I mean – always negative and sarcastic, always complaining and whining, never contributes anything useful, constantly criticizes without offering alternatives, often insults and abuses the chairperson and other members, and generally takes all the fun out of working together.

Jerks are an annoyance in any type of organization or company. However, they are particularly destructive in non-profit organizations and voluntary associations. This is because these types of organizations rely heavily on volunteers to get things done.

Having a jerk on a volunteer board or committee turns everyone else off, and thus seriously interferes with getting tasks and projects done. Tensions and stress levels increase in the group. Open, honest communication and trust disappear. Members physically or mentally drop out. It becomes nearly impossible to recruit new volunteers. Eventually the board or committee becomes totally dysfunctional and must be disbanded.

This is not to say that there should not be any heated debates or constructive criticism in board or committee discussions. There should be! The quality of decisions depends on being aware and carefully examining all aspects of an issue, both positive and negative. Disagreement and different views are healthy and an essential part of an effective organization. On effective boards and committees, after the debate and discussions, everyone moves on and continues to work together in the best interests of the association. Unfortunately, the jerk does not understand or participate in these normal processes and usually continues to be an obstructionist.

So how do you deal with the jerk on your board or in your committee? The most effective strategy is prevention. Do not let them in! Here are some suggestions on how to keep the jerks out.

1. Know the people you are accepting into your committees. If someone is volunteering to serve on a committee, and you know they do not work well in a group, then decline to accept them. If the volunteer is unknown, talk to a few people that know this individual before accepting them into your group.

2. When selecting individuals to serve on your board of directors, consider the following:

a. Have a nominating process and committee that carefully recruits and screens potential board members.

b. Make your boards attractive enough so that it attracts competent individuals:

  • Have term limits so people are not volunteering for life
  • Pay expenses related to board meetings and work
  • Provide free lunches and meals
  • Have an orientation so new board members know their roles
  • Provide support staff so that board members don’t have to do ALL the work
  • Recognize and show appreciation for the work of each board member
  • Waive membership fees and provide other low-cost perks.

What do you do as a chairperson if a jerk gets past your preventative measures and is nominated to the board or appointed to a committee? Your best approach is to follow a two-pronged strategy: public behaviour designed to make you look confident and in control of the situation, and subtle pressures to clip the jerk’s wings and reassert your supremacy. Some specific suggestions on what to do include:

1. Stay cool and unruffled. Never wear your emotions on your sleeve. Don’t badmouth the jerk. It’ll make you look like a petty tyrant trying to hold down a new member. Instead credit him/her with doing a good job, though a subtle touch of condescension in speech and manner doesn’t hurt. You will look supportive, self-assured and beyond the reach of subversive threats.

2. Assert your authority. Come across as someone in charge confidently assessing any ideas provided by the jerk. Give him/her some credit, but leave the authority and decision making in your and/or the group’s hands.

3. Adopt a participative style. Ask for suggestions and creative solutions to problems from all members of the group. If the jerk does not contribute any, he/she will lose their credibility and influence.

4. Do team building. If the jerk’s activities slow down the group’s work, consider holding a few “team building” sessions. If you do not have the expertise, consider bringing in an outside facilitator to help the group improve its processes and team effectiveness.

5. Counsel the individual. As chairperson, meet with the jerk individually and express your concerns about his/her behaviour and the negative impact it is having on the board or committee. Ask the jerk to co-operate and be supportive of the group’s efforts.

6. Isolate the jerk. Keep him/her away from key meetings. Limit the amount of information they get. Don’t socialize with them and signal to others that you do not. Partial isolation may be effective enough that the person will improve his/her behaviour, or better still, decide to quit.

7. Terminate. If the disruption gets serious, the board or committee may have no alternative but to remove the individual. For a committee, the individual is thanked for his/her participation and told that they are no longer required. For an elected board member, the board may have to vote to suspend the offending member. Be sure that your bylaws have provisions for removing board members for good reasons.

Don’t wait too long to terminate jerks who are negatively affecting the workings of your board or committee. As a volunteer association, you often don’t have the resources or luxury of trying to rehabilitate them. That is not your responsibility. So don’t stall or feel guilty. Just do it!

Ideally your association only has competent and motivated volunteers working for it. However, if you do get stuck with some jerks, hopefully the above suggestions will help you in dealing with them.