Most of my work in organizational development has been with nonprofit organizations. Nonprofit organizations are all overseen by boards, which are full of volunteers. Sometimes board members are paid, but by and large it’s an unpaid job that’s seen as a service to an organization or cause that you believe in and want to help.
In an ideal situation, nonprofit boards can be the main procurers of resources for their organizations. Usually this is money, but also time, skill, and expertise. Most nonprofit boards strive to have people who can step up and offer support and advice in more complicated situations so the organization doesn’t need to keep experts on retainer or pay every time a leader needs some advice. They’ll seek out accountants, lawyers, professionals in the field they’re in, and people who received direct service or experience with the organization to offer perspective as an insider.
But one thing nonprofit boards rarely have but always need is someone who has experience in managing people through conflict and change. This can be someone who has experience in HR, organizational development, leadership development, training, facilitation, but no matter what, it should be someone who has real experience taking complex human problems and knowing the best way to get all the humans through them with minimal negative impact.
What this oversight almost always leads to is, inevitably, the people in the organization or board have a complex or serious issue emerge, and the whole thing gets handled based on feelings and vibes and not actual proven process.
I call this the “We’re Doing Our Best” approach.
When you handle situations like this without any process, when you are dictated by feelings, you end up catering to the people who are loudest, who are most hurt, which is not the same as catering to the people who are the most harmed. You listen to people’s grievances with no idea what to do with the information and how to change the situation or prevent it in the future. You definitely hurt someone and likely hurt other bystanders too. And when someone says “Hey, this isn’t going very well.” You know what the reply usually is?
“We’re doing our best.”
Yeah, but your best is not good enough when it comes to people. You can’t handle workplace disputes the way you’ve been taught to handle friend and partner disputes. It’s likely the way you handle personal disagreements has been taught to you through absorbing and modeling the way your parents argued. And most of us have parents who were taught to avoid confrontation. Go along to get along. Keep calm and be cool. So when you do finally feel enough feelings to bring something up, it is loud, full of pain, and messy.
When there is pain and mess, when someone is loud, it is normal and human to respond by trying to soothe, contain, and quiet. Most of us respond to seeing someone in pain by trying to alleviate it. Which is fine in friendship and intimate partnerships and family. But at work, we want information, we want structure, we want to help someone if they are in acute crisis, but without necessarily validating or affirming their perspective because they have just one part of a story.
Doing this, holding space without necessarily agreeing with someone when they’re in distress, that is a highly specialized skill that people get a lot of training for. And the average nonprofit board member, heck even the average human, is likely not trained for this.
But they try and proceed because seeing people upset is upsetting. So they move towards the most pain and try and alleviate that first, likely discounting the people who are calmer and more contained. And the worst part about that is, do you know who is likely to know how to be calmer and more contained?
People who are systematically traumatized into it.
It’s why the concerns of women, BIPOC, disabled, and LGBTQ folks are often pushed to the side. They have been traumatized into being quieter, more complacent, more convenient, and so they look like they’re in less pain and therefore don’t really have a story to tell.
“But, we’re doing our best.”
Your best is hurting people. Your best is likely undermining very real goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion you are trying to achieve. Your best is pushing people out of your organization. Your best is causing homogeneity, which ultimately causes a more brittle, inflexible organization that can’t withstand major stressors.
Your best will continue to fail you and the people you work with until you create a clear, replicable, straightforward process for handling conflict. It will continue to cause harm until you actually value the skill of someone who manages people problems for a living. The skills of holding space, collecting information, and drawing conclusions while being compassionate, having someone feel heard and seen, but not siding with them. This is a very careful balancing act that cannot be done by just anyone.
So you, volunteer nonprofit board member, you need to stop pretending like it’s a job for just anyone and get yourself some counsel around the matter, some skill development, and hopefully one of these highly trained individuals to give you their time and talent on your board. Then you are actually doing your best. But until then, you’re just doing harm.