Do simmering issues on your team prevent smooth group efforts?
Maybe there’s past ‘bad blood,’ or one party imputes negative motives to the other. Perhaps a dominant personality habitually runs roughshod over the ideas of the other, or two team members have become avatars for two different factions.
For example, in one organization, disagreement in philosophy between two board factions was harming working relationships in the entire organization. The tensions affected the staff mentally and emotionally, and the board members had no clue. As I facilitated their retreat, I had the opportunity to show them the effect of this tension and help them craft a way to deal with the disagreements.
This is a common situation. As a group, you have to work together, but you know there are issues that could derail the process. What can you do?
You need a neutral navigator
A trusted, neutral person – an internal or external facilitator – can address the underlying tension. They help the parties recognize that the tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but has to be attended to or it will affect the entire organization.
Several key steps make this trust possible.
- The facilitator must be viewed as neutral. Whether internal or external, the facilitator has to be seen as not favoring one party or the other.
- The facilitator must have a personal, confidential conversation with each party to the decisionmaking process. Whether in-person or by phone, by interviewing each party no one person feels like they have been singled out. Through these confidential conversations the facilitator begins to lay the foundation of trust, and hears how the parties talk about the simmering issues.
- In the meeting, the facilitator identifies the task at hand and gets agreement that this is its purpose. This establishes that there is a higher goal they are all aspiring to.
- The facilitator builds on the individual trust relationship by creating a safe space within the group. This means starting with noncontroversial topics and using techniques so each participant has an opportunity to talk about something personally meaningful. Often, the facilitator can bring the group to agreement about the ultimate value of the organization purpose; this lays the groundwork for a discussion of how the tension is harming their work towards this goal.
Address the tension
- The facilitator brings up the simmering disagreement themself. This is very important. After reiterating and getting acknowledgement that this is a safe space, the facilitator states they’d like to bring up something they heard from several people in the confidential conversations. Then, without naming names, they relate what they heard and the effect it has on the entire organization.
- The facilitator states that tension, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Tension can make for a more robust examination of issues. It is how it is dealt with that’s important. Reiterating the tension, the facilitator asks for situations in which this tension has affected the organization’s operations, and how it is currently dealt with.
- The facilitator’s questions avoid laying blame AND avoid placing responsibility for the solution. Once the group acknowledges the tension, the next question is “what can be put in place that will make it easier to deal with the tension?” This phrasing reinforces the neutrality and extends the trust relationship. No one person is singled out. It conditions participants to think of solutions without implicating a particular person. It is not, “what can Joe do….,” but indicates that they can all implement a system that relieves the situation.
- The facilitator continues this discussion, documents the solutions, and uses techniques for coming to consensus on the process they will follow in the future when the tension arises. At the conclusion, the process is documented and distributed.
Relax and work toward a solution
The key is having a neutral, trusted individual facilitate the discussion. Whether using an internal or external facilitator, each participant knows that they will be treated fairly and not singled out. Members of the group can then relax and work together toward a solution.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a multi-day retreat or a half-day planning session. Without attending to underlying tensions, they can derail getting consensus on decisions.
What’s going on in YOUR teams? Can attention to tensions make your work smoother?
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credit: John Quidor
In Washington Irving’s story of Rip Van Winkle, old Rip goes off hunting to the mountains, encounters supernatural beings, drinks of their keg of brew, and falls asleep. Upon awakening, he returns home, only to find that 20 years have passed and the country is no longer beholden to King George III but is instead a republic with George Washington at the helm.
Imagine yourself, 20 years from now, returning to the nonprofit of which you are a part. Would you recognize it? Is the mission the same? Are its values the same? Would you still want to support it?
Organizations review their missions regularly; that’s a good thing. Nonprofits must evolve over time or risk irrelevance. But there is a difference between evolving to better serve the greater vision and doing a complete about-face on what that greater vision is.
This is the imperative of board recruitment:
Do your new directors aspire to the original vision of the institution?
If not, the organization may, in the words of Nonprofit Quarterly, be hijacked.
Consider the American Bible Society, which moved from a nonsectarian mission to distribute bibles to one that overtly espouses an evangelical point of view. As Ruth McCambridge relates, the move has been gradual, but appears caused by having individuals with a particular point of view on the board. These individuals in turn recruited like-minded other directors, until board level decisions began reflecting their particular view, affecting all their programs and policies.
This very clear example is a cautionary tale.
Whom your board recruits today affects what your organization looks like 20 years from now.
Each successive board moves the institution forward, and the tiny shifts build up over time.
Diversity of viewpoints keep the organization from shifting too far in one direction or another. The vibrant discussions that diversity leads to is one factor in ensuring that each decision is thoroughly examined.
Diversity of experience, viewpoints, skills and aptitudes keeps organizations relevant. It’s also a way to keep the vision front and center.
Recruitment is a fiduciary responsibility and a crucial investment in your future.
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Focus “means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are…innovation is saying no to 1000 things.” Steve Jobs, 1997
We are a naturally giving people. Those of us working in the nonprofit world, or volunteering on boards, are preconditioned to saying yes.
“Of course we can help with that.”
“That sounds like a great idea, how can I help?”
“They’re doing such great work, we should help them.”
“Can you do this? Yes.”
“We need more staff next week, can you send over some people? Of course.”
“The city needs more day care centers, can you put one in? Sure.”
Working in this arena such a pleasure – we are among people who, like us, are naturally giving. It is a joy to be surrounded by people whose first impulse is to say yes.
Unfortunately, it also means that we have to take care to not dissipate our own energy and resources, leaving less for the programs and work which we have declared to be OUR focus.
When Steve Jobs said that focus “means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are,” he was talking about his own company. When Brené Brown called focus her word of the year, she expanded the meaning to personal focus. What can we do if we set our own goals, and minimize the extraneous pulls on our attention? Inc. Magazine also expanded on these ideas, with specific guidance on ways to maximize focus.
What does this mean in the world of nonprofits? It means the same thing.
We naturally want to help the world; we naturally want to do everything that will contribute to our mission. But we can’t. At least not all at once.
The important thing is to decide what it is you – all of you – your board, staff, volunteers — will focus on right now. Then stay focused on doing that. Listen to other ideas, and be ready and willing to say ‘no.’ If you can’t say ‘no,’ say ‘not now.’
There’s a reason you decided on your course of action. Bolster your resolve by reminding yourself and others what those reasons are.
Focus – and success – means saying no to the rest.
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“A committee is a group of people who individually can do nothing, but who, as a group, can meet and decide that nothing can be done.” Fred Allen
“A committee is a group that keeps minutes and loses hours.” Milton Berle
Then there’s this rubber stamp I was given, that said,
“Great idea! Assign a committee to foul it up!”
There is an image of nonprofit board committees as the place where ideas go to die a slow and lingering death; where process overcomes inspiration; where group-think strangles innovation.
But if you’re running an organization, it’s really hard to get anything done if you can’t segment off a group of people to work on specific jobs. How do you get people to work on these jobs? You invite them. Nicely.
The problem with committees is that word: “commit”.
That’s especially true in today’s society. Sometimes I feel so rushed and overwhelmed, that the thought of taking on another commitment sends me screaming in the other direction –Noooooo!!!!! You mean, I have to come to meetings and be obligated for two whole years???
But if someone said to me, “Hey, Janay has this great idea; Jim and I are going to help her make it happen. Can you join us?” my answer is probably going to at least lead to a query for more information.
Asking someone to join the Finance Committee might be deadly. Asking someone to help figure out the best way to maximize the dollars we have available for our mission…? Well, that’s intriguing.
Being offered an idea for engaging new supporters and telling them to give the idea to a committee is disheartening. Being asked to explore the idea with others and generate ways to make it work is an invitation.
Committees aren’t inherently bad. It’s how we ask people to serve that creates the deadly atmosphere surrounding them.
Invite people to MAKE THINGS HAPPEN.
Let’s change the conversation.
This is based on a January 2014 post. It bears repeating!
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Face it. People don’t always do what they’ve promised to do.
They mean it when they promise. They believe in the cause, and they truly believe they will accomplish the task they’ve agreed to do. Board members and program volunteers alike. They’re committed. They know it’s important.
So why don’t they actually do it?!?!
Life gets in the way. Your volunteers and board members don’t eat, sleep and breathe your mission the way your staff does. Their time frame is different from yours. Boards meet monthly or quarterly. If you’re the CEO, you’re on a daily time frame. Your board members eat sleep and breathe their own work.
So as CEOs and senior staff we rant, vent and resent that our board members need to be reminded about their reports (aren’t they grownups??) and we sigh in exasperation that our trustees haven’t made their friendraising calls (don’t they know how important this is???).
Actually, they do know how important it is. And they feel badly when they don’t follow through. But their urgent takes precedence over your necessary. No matter what the level of volunteer, our cause is just one aspect of their lives.
What’s a board president (or executive director) to do?
That’s a great question. Why don’t you ask them?
Janice, I know plan to get the board reports online a week before the next board meeting. What will it make it possible for you to do that? What do you need?
DeShon, I really appreciate your commitment to make 4 friendraising calls each week. What will make it possible for you to do that? What do you need from us?
For every end result we want, some things have to happen first. Sometimes we have to set the stage. Our volunteers may not be thinking that way. The questions:
“What will make it possible for you to do that?” and
“What do you need?”
starts the mind thinking of what those necessary things are. They may say something like, “remind me on Wednesday.” Or, “can you give me some actual words to say on the call?” Or “actually, this isn’t a great week for me, but can you sit with me on Saturday and help make those first calls?”
Whatever it is, it’s a lot more productive than ranting, and you and they have a path forward.
Now you can think about what to do with that extra energy.
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