The sector's passive-aggressive culture makes it hard to come to fully explored decisions

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

People undoubtedly like to talk about the values of the charity sector: voluntary trusteeship, putting people before profit, developing people's sense of altruism and much more.

I would like to add another value: being passive-aggressive. Too many people in charities agree to your face and disagree behind your back.

To edit for polite consumption how one person who had come from the commercial sector put it to me: "In the commercial world, I'm used to having massive arguments before a decision is made - and then, once a decision is made, everybody working like crazy to implement a decision.

"Charities are the opposite. Nobody disagrees with me up front. They all smile sweetly and agree with me. But once a decision is made, everybody works hard to undermine it and make sure it is never implemented."

I have recently heard about three examples of passive-aggressive behaviour. First, a former colleague related their experience of a board meeting where the new chair aired the views of anonymous colleagues to undermine the decision the board had made 11 months earlier. The second was meeting a new head of HR fresh from the retail sector who said he was struggling to work out when yes meant yes, and when yes meant no. The third was a situation in which a trustee queried the voting protocol behind a decision, despite publicly being fully in support.

This trait, displayed by so many charities in their culture and decision-making, is a problem in many ways. The most obvious is that the pros and cons of any decision are never aired. A decision is not fully explored because people smile sweetly and agree, but then work their socks off to undermine it. How can organisations work on that basis?

This failure to be honest in public is one of the reasons the sector can end up in so many difficult situations. How many people were privately worried about the direction that fundraising or the sector in general were heading, and how few articulated those feelings in public? How many have concerns about some features of charities but have failed to speak up? If too few say what everybody is thinking, that is how bad things are able to happen.

Perhaps we suffer from the feeling that we need to be "nice" the whole time, as Stella Smith talked about in her Third Sector column last month. However, where we believe one thing and say another, we are not being true to our values. I would like to suggest that this is endemic in charities. So while the sector prides itself on a long history of campaigning, the internal culture of many organisations pulls the other way.

Don't get me wrong, being "aggressive-aggressive", better known as "disagreeing", is not easy. Few people like conflict. However, gently, calmly and persuasively letting people know that you disagree with them is crucial to success. It helps people make better decisions. It ensures people understand where their arguments are being persuasive and where they aren't. Most important of all, it ensures that people are honest to the sector they work in. If we can't be honest with our fellow staff, trustees or volunteers, how can we expect others to speak truth to power?

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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