The Indispensable Role of the Grumpy Board Member

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“Dissidents anywhere have an interesting time, particularly on boards of directors.”

Walter Cronkhite, A Reporter’s Life, p 371.


Every board needs one member who is contrary, challenging and skeptical.  And every board struggles with how to harmonize that board member’s behavior with the rest of the board.  Ouch.


Why does the board need this grumpy board member?


There is a story reported in Newsweek about a small plane whose image appeared on the military radar screens in Moscow in the 1980s.  The military technicians had a hard time identifying what this green blip on the screen really was in the air.  Was it a group of birds?  No, the birds would be migrating north at this time, not south as they blip on the screen traveled.  Could it be hail? No, no clouds in the vicinity.  Then, everyone in the group agreed that it would be birds, even though nobody believed it.


Group think.


Boards are susceptible to group think.  Everyone on the board wants to get along with each other (witness the low number of split votes on any issue), they often have pre-existing social relationships with each other and they generally don’t want a lot of conflict in their volunteer work.


A contrary, challenging, skeptical board member can help avoid group-think decisions.  This board member asks uncomfortable questions.  He raises red flags.  He slows down runaway processes.  He looks at things perhaps as a banker would: would he lend money on this idea?  This grumpy board member, by virtue of his world view and neurological wiring, isn’t going to let anything slip by.


It may not be that this board member wishes to be combative.  His brain just works a little differently from his colleagues’.  Some people sort information by similarity.  Look at this set of dots below.

You might see six red dots.  You sort things by how they are similar.  Your grumpy board member sees one black dot.  He sorts things by how they are different.


In a board meeting, as the members are circling around an imminent decision, the grumpy board member is likely looking at what’s different and not lining up, not how the decision is coming together.  He’s asking questions that begin with the word “but…”  He’s a pain in the neck in getting decisions nailed down.  He can’t help it.  He’s wired that way.


And that wiring is important to having the board avoid group-think mistakes.  No decisions will sail through unassaulted.  They’ll all go through the gauntlet.  Good.


Another form of grumpy board member behavior is advancing nasty question, “But how will it work?”  This board member may sort information more toward the fine-detail end of the spectrum, away from the big-picture side.


The big picture people are already launched toward their next agenda item, having painted with a broad brush a compelling vision of how great the future will be when the decision at hand has been implemented.  They are driving down the road looking at the mountains in the distance, and the wonderful puffy cumulus clouds above them.  The big-picture people are gazing at the clouds but missing the potholes.


The detail-oriented board member wants to know, yes, grand vision, but also how exactly will it work and what exactly do we do tomorrow to move this decision forward?  The big picture board members say, “That’s just a detail.”  The detail-oriented board member replies, “Exactly.”  This detail-oriented board member’s question deserves an answer.  If the board can’t spec out the details, maybe it doesn’t understand the decision.  It’s not looking out for the potholes.  The detail-oriented board member will help the board look down from the clouds toward the road bed.


A third grumpy board member behavior is about avoiding trouble.  Most board members are more motivated to take action by moving toward desirable things that the organization does not yet have, rather than by moving away from things that the organization doesn’t want.  This is opposite from the make up of the general population.  At least in North America, 85% of us are more moved to action by getting away from what we don’t want.  Hence all the negative campaigning that political candidates engage in—they work with most of the people.


Many board members are exceptional people in that they are in the 15% of move-toward people.  They are more prone to Polly Anna optimism, seeing the bright side and overemphasizing the positive facet of the issue.  They can make errors of grandiosity and avoid sufficient diligence.


The move-away board member helps prevent pies-in-the-sky by bringing up potential snags, hiccups, bear-traps, tangles, snares and pitfalls.  This board member’s questions also often start with the word “but.”  “But where will we get the money?  We don’t have the available capacity.  This will get us cross-wise to the county commissioners.” And a host of other issues.


The board needs to listen, consider the issue or question sincerely and to make sure that the concern is covered.


The grumpy board member is odd in the organization, lonely on the board, and utterly indispensable.  The rest of the board views with member as a pain.


The real pain is to not have someone on the board filling the role of contrarian, argumentarian, detail-monger, black-hat, stone-hearted banker.


Most of us are trying to get along on the board, smooth out relations, looking at the big picture, moving toward what would make the world a better place.  We can miss the trouble spots, problems and details.


The lone grumpy board member is a vital asset to the board.  Listen to him.  Take him sincerely.  Make better decisions (but make them) with his questions in mind.  And don’t forget to tell him that he’s important, even when overruled or outvoted.


And if you don’t have one such board member, go get one.



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