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The Challenge of a Difficult Board or Committee Member on a Volunteer Board

The Challenge of a Difficult Board or Committee Member on a Volunteer Board

March 1, 2024
Howard Cohen

Committee or board members who are volunteers can’t be treated as if they are employees. The chair is not their employer and does not have the usual tools of compliance that are available to an employer. 

Some board or committee members have seats on the group because they are major donors to the organization or represent important clients. Their presence on the board or committee is not the chair’s call.  

Moreover, the organization has an interest in not alienating volunteers, particularly those who contribute to the organization’s success. 

Nevertheless, a board or committee member can sometimes be quite disruptive, and it is the chair’s responsibility to deal with that problem to ensure the proper functioning and the effectiveness of the group.

When is a board or committee member difficult?  Some examples: 

  • The member delights in being contrarian. Under the banner of “devil’s advocate” the member disagrees with almost any proposal for the seeming pleasure of being disagreeable. This can easily become an annoyance to other members.
  • The member is harsh or insulting or uses inappropriate language toward other members in the name of “just being honest.” Other members may become reluctant to speak in meetings or work with that member on projects.
  • The member dominates discussion and ignores the chair’s effort to make space for others to speak. The chair may sense frustration of the other members.
  • The member complains about the board or committee to outsiders on matters that have not been raised with the chair or within meetings. Other members may feel attacked by such complaints.
  • The member gives orders to employees of the organization without having been delegated to do so. The organization’s executive director may likely complain about this to the board or committee chair.
  • The member criticizes board decisions in public without forewarning the chair. The chair may find him- or herself on the defensive both within the organization and in public.

What is to be done? 

How is a chair to address such a member’s behavior, particularly if doing so feels like skating on thin ice? How does the chair confront such a member without being “confrontational?”

Ignoring the problem is not really an option.  Maintaining a proper functioning board or committee is the chair’s responsibility. The chair needs to meet with the difficult member and find a way to ameliorate the problem. Although there is no guarantee of success, some ways to address the problem are better than others. 

My best advice is to approach an impending meeting with the difficult member in three stages:

Stage 1: Prepare for the meeting

Be precise about the problem you intend to address. What specific behavior do you wish to see the member eliminate or change? Try to cite specific examples. Describe the examples in factual language without drama or embellishment. Stay focused on what happened. Avoid “always” and “never” statements in characterizing the situation you plan to discuss.

Look honestly at your own behavior in these situations. Ask yourself whether you have contributed to the problem. Have you said or done anything to provoke the difficult behavior or failed to react at the time it happened? If so, be prepared to concede this in your discussion.

Stage 2: The meeting

Don’t ambush the member in your meeting. Let the person know in advance what you want to discuss. This can be expressed in general terms; save the specifics for the face-to-face meeting.

Open the meeting calmly with a factual description of the issue to be discussed. You have presumably already crafted this in your preparation for the meeting.

Having stated your description of the issue, stop talking and invite the member to respond. Don’t interrupt. Listen carefully and take notes if you need to do so.

After the member has finished speaking, you should respond. Note areas of factual disagreement, but don’t dwell on them. This part of the meeting should be a dialogue. Frame your responses in “I statements.” That is, talk about how the behavior under discussion makes you (or others) feel. First-person feeling statements are less open to dispute than purported or disputed statements of fact. Use the meeting to fully air the issue of the behavior you would like to see changed.

Stage 3: Resolution

It is possible, but not likely, that this meeting will result in the member’s complete acknowledgement of his or her difficult behavior and an agreement to end it. But the goal here is not surrender; it is finding a way to reduce the disruption to make the work of the committee or board more effective.

A helpful approach toward this end is to focus on what both you and the member have a right to expect of one another in relation to the work of the board or committee.  Each of you should develop such a statement separately and use both statements as the basis for further discussion. If you can find points of agreement, it would be valuable for each of you to sign off on these expectations and hold one another to them in the future work of the board or committee.

Although these difficulties are not always resolvable, some of them surely are. To the extent that you can address them, you will improve the effectiveness of your group.

And if you can’t find a resolution?

As for the unresolvable situations in which the board or committee member refuses to cooperate with the chair, there are a number of options – none of them good. 

  • The chair can ignore the difficult behavior and proceed as if the effort to ameliorate it never occurred. This may cause the difficult member to intensify the behavior in question.
  • The chair can call out the difficult behavior each time the member exhibits it. This will likely generate a hostile response from the member and create an uncomfortable situation for the other members.
  • The chair can attempt to have the difficult member removed from the committee or board. This course of action risks causing problems for the organization.
  • The chair can resign as chair or resign from the board or committee. Either of these options may be regarded as letting the organization down. At the very least, they will end a service role that the chair presumably valued.

These are some of the perils of working as a volunteer in an organization that relies on volunteers. They speak to the value of catching potential problems before they grow to become unresolvable.


Howard Cohen

Howard is chancellor emeritus at Purdue University Northwest. His career in higher education has spanned more than 50 years. His areas of practice include strategic and academic planning, department chair leadership, leadership team development and organization structural transformation. Howard has held academic appointments as a professor of philosophy and administrative appointments as department chair, program director, dean, provost and chancellor, serving at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Purdue University Northwest and SUNY Buffalo State. He formerly was a senior associate and executive director of AASCU Consulting, a group that works primarily with public regional universities. Howard’s teaching and research interests have focused in the areas of social philosophy and ethics, as he addresses questions related to the obligations of those in positions of authority who make decisions for others. He is the author of two books — “Equal Rights for Children” and “Power and Restraint: The Moral Dimensions of Police Work” — and numerous journal articles. He holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Minnesota and masters and doctorate degrees in philosophy from Harvard University.