Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
I am part of a volunteer networking organization that is suffering severe growing pains. Our president is the type of person who can get things going with her enthusiasm, but she’s also a control freak. She is unwilling to have even the smallest decision made without her consent, but she is very busy with her professional life and whenever anyone else on the executive board attempts to make a decision, they receive an e-mail stating that nothing should move without consulting her, and that we don’t fully understand the dynamics at play. She is not willing to make a decision, and so nothing gets done.
She has even made up stories in order to justify her actions. Board members she accused of mentioning certain things have denied it when I attempted to confirm her stories.
I must add that I am hampered by distance at the moment, and the only way I can address any of this is via phone or e-mail. How can I address this so that she doesn’t get defensive? A few members have already left, and more of us are in danger of leaving. I don’t want to see this organization die so quickly,
Let’s see if I have this straight. You are all volunteers. She’s the president and she is a “control freak” who won’t allow others to make decisions that need to be made, but she won’t make them either. She may also be lying in order to justify what she has asked of you. Her leadership style is damaging the organization’s ability to move forward. People are leaving and you’re thinking about leaving as well.
Now, as I’m sure you’re aware, most of these statements represent conclusions you’ve drawn about her behavior. They may be fairly accurate, but I’m willing to bet that she won’t agree with them—at least not with all of them.
You and the other board members must decide if you’re going to allow the president to continue as usual, if you’re going to meet and talk with her (can she change enough before the organization falls apart?), or if you should find a new president. Let’s assume that you believe the president has enough drive, energy, and good qualities that you want her to continue in her position.
Ideally, you would be able to have a conversation to address these issues face-to-face. Your concerns about her overall leadership ability are far too large to be handled easily electronically. So if it’s at all possible, try to actually meet with her to hold this conversation.
You’ll need to talk about what needs to change. Obviously, your conclusions about her being a control freak and possibly a liar are far too brash a starting point. You’ll need to assume that she’s trying her best and wants to maintain control because she cares deeply about making the right decisions. Also be aware that you might not have all the information about many of the details of your past misunderstandings. Otherwise, you’ll carry far too much anger and judgment into the conversation and it’ll be doomed from the beginning. She’ll become defensive because your opening lines will come across as an attack.
Instead, start with a good thought. Remember that she’s dedicated and hard working. This will help you set the right tone and create the safety you’ll need to talk about this sensitive topic. Then address only one issue—trying to address all the issues at once will make it hard to keep the conversation focused, and may destroy safety by again feeling like an attack. Pick the big issue—the organization needs to find a better way to make decisions so it can move more rapidly. Start by asking permission to discuss an important issue. Then begin by reassuring the president of your mutual purpose:
“I understand your desire to ensure that the best choices get made. I think we’re all in agreement that we want that to happen.”
Next, tentatively share your concern.
“I’m concerned with how decisions are currently being made. It seems that it’s now taking so long and involving so many people that it’s starting to paralyze the organization. We don’t seem to be moving forward on a lot of decisions that need to be made.”
Share specific instances of pending decisions past or present, as well as some of the consequences of the delays.
Make it clear that this needs to change. Stick with this topic.
It might be helpful to review the types of decisions that she’s currently making—budget, personnel, policies, etc. Then examine the various ways each might be made—consensus, consultation, command, or vote. Let her know that running everything through her simply doesn’t work.
“I’m wondering if we could talk about the kinds of decisions that need to be made, and come to agreement about how each should be made so that we can move forward.”
(For a more complete description of each of these decision-making methods and when to use them, read pages 161–173 of Crucial Conversations. There we give a detailed description of the pros and cons of each method as well as common mistakes and how to avoid them.)
The goal here is to pick one problem area, discuss it calmly and professionally, and wrestle the problem to the ground before you move on. Don’t dump all of the issues on her at once and don’t share your inflammatory conclusions. Stick with the decision-making discussion until you jointly agree on how decisions will be made in the future. Finally stay upbeat yet firm. Your organization depends on it.
If the president refuses to talk about the issue or insists on continuing to hold up the decision-making process, you’re at a crossroads. You and the other board members must decide if you should find a new president.
Delaying the decision is, in fact, allowing the status quo to continue and it sounds like that’s a bad idea. So you’re going to have to talk with the other board members immediately and decide what you want to do. If your allegations are right, the organization is about to fall apart and it would be irresponsible of the board to sit back and watch it happen.