Debra Allcock Tyler: When trustees become judge, jury and executioner

Trustees Week is an important opportunity to thank trustees – and a chance to reflect on whether your behaviour merits it

It’s Trustees Week – and all week we will see tweets from charities and their chief executives thanking and celebrating their trustees.

In many cases, of course, that thanks will be heartfelt and deserved.  

But I can absolutely guarantee that behind some of those tweets of thanks and gratitude there will be people doing it through gritted teeth.

People who often feel sick and anxious because they feel bullied or belittled by their board. Who dread trustee meetings because it feels like they are on trial with the board as judge, jury and executioner.

I’ve seen it so often. Perfectly lovely human beings join a board and suddenly group psychology takes over and they start to behave more like members of a hostile gang than fellow travellers on the charity’s journey. 

Some of this is down to social conformity theory, where the need to belong to the group takes over independence of thought. And before you exclaim hotly that you never do that – we all do it – including me.  

I remember an instance where the relationship between a board and the executive was very sticky.

One of the trustees was really keen on a merger with another organisation and asked the exec to put a proposal to the board.

It was a good proposal. But the board were in a bad mood (yep – we’ve all seen that) and when it came to it they all voted against it, including, shockingly, the trustee who had asked for the proposal to be made.  

After the meeting she said privately to the executive: “I’m sorry I voted against it – but I didn’t want the rest of the board to think I was on your side, not theirs.” Appalling, right? 

We can all have opinions about the integrity of her behaviour – but clearly she also felt bullied, or she would have had the courage of her convictions.

Never, ever forget that when there are several of you and only one of them you can bully simply by sheer weight of numbers. 

The relationship is unbalanced and you need to work on balancing it. By all means ask them what they think of you all – but they’ll probably fib and say you’re great. You can sack them, remember.   

Here’s the thing. Bullying and bad behaviour is often not loud shouting or slamming fists on tables (although we’ve all seen that too).  

It’s often more subtle and corrosive. Passive aggressive behaviour, such as hostile, patronising tones in questions; being openly dismissive of executive input; exchanging ‘knowing’ glances with other trustees; not intervening or standing up for the executive when fellow trustees are behaving badly.

So, take some time during Trustees Week to reflect on your behaviour towards your chief executive and executive team. Talk to your fellow trustees about agreeing what appropriate behaviour looks like.

Be honest with yourself: does your behaviour help them to shine or make them cry? 

When they thank you this week, can you hand-on-heart say that you deserve it?

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change 

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