Have you ever had ‘THAT’ member end up on your board of directors–the one who is toxic, divisive, domineering, and destructive? And those are just their warm-up act?

As someone who has worked with some incredible trade associations and been a local chamber President, I can tell you with certainty that effective, inclusive leadership can grow an organization financially, in membership size, and in strength and quality of servant leadership.

However, make one, wrong move and elevate toxic volunteers into leadership roles, and there can be hell to pay.

Numerous studies have been done on the effects of toxic behavior in businesses and the military, but there’s not much research about how toxic behavior affects membership-based, volunteer-governed organizations. For one big reason, membership organizations are hurt even more dramatically. Why? No significant handcuffs to keep people there.

In business, employees can weigh the toxic atmosphere vs. the salary and benefits and decide whether to stay or go.  But financial stability keeps a lot of people in place. And, in the military, you can’t leave instantly if you don’t like your boss. That’s called desertion!

But in chambers, associations, PTAs or churches, if other members are being attacked or abused by your toxic leaders, people start to ask the question ‘I’m paying money or donating my time for this?’

Where toxic leadership exists, good people flee. Elevate toxic members to become the faces of your organization and you can say goodbye to members either through them pulling back their involvement or, in some cases, not renewing.

When toxic people join your leadership, the chemistry of everything can change overnight. What are some of the potential signs?

  • Little to no interaction during meetings, as ‘after the meeting’ meetings become commonplace
  • Board members resign or drift off without explanation–they will likely not say, but you can see all the breadcrumbs in their departure
  • Bylaws become more like suggestions than rules–the buy-in decreases among members
  • Bad behavior is ignored–some of it may be a lack of concern, some of it may be that board members do not want to confront the toxic
  • Personal agendas take the forefront within the organization
  • Members drop because of the board’s choice of leadership or cut back on their investments either without explanation or with a direct explanation as to why.

Sound familiar?

When these types of signs start sinking in, it’s not long before your board is overtaken by toxicity. And the rank and file membership sees the results next, as the toxic board members rarely target just the board members with their actions.

The toxic leaders can become the face of your organization and, if bylaws dictate it, may pick your future leadership. Toxic leaders will often seek out people just like them. It’s human nature, and it’s a vicious cycle.

What are the risks?  Lower retention rates, lost revenue, lost staff productivity due to being in constant clean-up mode,  lost potential leaders for the future who become disenchanted with the organization, and risk of long-term damage to the organization’s reputation.

If what I’ve described above either sounds all too familiar or sounds like something you want to avoid like the plague, you have one thing to do. It’s what I call in my book The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures, ”Fireproofing’.

The Arsonists I describe in my book are those people that burn things down within organizations (whether in businesses, chambers, associations, churches, PTAs, or you name it) and toxic leadership within your organizations are at the top of the arsonist pecking order.

How can you extinguish the arsonists within your chamber or association and fireproof it for the future? I talk about lots of them in my book, but below are a few ‘fireproofing’ ideas:

  • Do you have a values statement that you can use as a way to screen out toxic people? If your checklist, whether written or unwritten, only includes employment in a member company and a pulse, you have a weakness in your process that you need to immediately address. Do candidates for your board have track records of inclusivity, cooperation, ethics, and selflessness? If yes, you are doing the right things. If there are red flags everywhere among your board members and candidates for the board, you need a values statement to measure people against to see if they meet your standards. And your existing board members need to ‘walk the walk’ on reflecting high standards too.
  • Find some ‘egg breakers’–I’m not suggesting you invite chaotic members onto your board, but find some members with strong principles, the standing to act without an overwhelming concern about what everyone else thinks and an ethical backbone can say and do things in board meetings that staff members never can.
  • Enforce your by-laws–Period.
  • Be transparent–Make sure all members of your board and executive board receive the same information.  Reduce the room for secrets.
  • Enforce your standards of conduct–Does your board have a code of ethics and conflict of interest provisions? Is it being followed? If not, start now and have your highest level of leadership possible address the topic. If you have a member who is actively hurting your cause–whether they realize it or not–give the coaching, 2nd chances, and instruction that you need to.  But then? Be committed to act to protect the health of the organization.

Finally, the other volunteer leaders of the organization find the courage to fire or reassign the toxic volunteer.  Like cancer and wildfires, toxic leadership never gets better if you walk away and come back to check in on it a few months later.

Obviously, the ‘firing’ of a member of chamber or association leadership is not an act done by a member of the staff, so board leadership on this matter is a must.  However, the staff will likely need to provide the education through board training to ensure members understand the dynamics.

Work within your bylaws, but educate your leaders to not be afraid to say ‘You’re Fired!’ to the volunteer, no matter how high up in your leadership, that is burning down your present and your future.

What do you think? I welcome your opinions!

Pete Havel is author of ‘The Arsonist in the Office: Fireproofing Your Life Against Toxic Coworkers, Bosses, Employees and Cultures’, the CEO of the Cloture Group–a consulting and training firm for cultural transformation, a public speaker, a regional executive for some of America’s leading trade associations and a former chamber of commerce president.  He can be reached at pete@petehavel.com or 855-NO-ARSON (855-662-7766).  The Arsonist in the Office is available at http://www.arsonistintheoffice.com or Amazon.




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