I once served on the board of a nonprofit with a group of men and women I deeply admired. Board meetings were an uninterrupted joy. Even lengthy conference calls were opportunities for spontaneous sharing, personal connection, and productive problem-solving. It was Camelot. Until it wasn’t.
As the composition of the board changed, so did my experience. The board got larger. Big donors took board seats – bringing important connections and resources as well as egos and politics. When a voluble board member went on about himself in agonizing detail, others rolled their eyes and turned to their laptops. When the rich and powerful made lame self-referential jokes, executive team members laughed too loud and too long. Decisions reflected who said it as much as what was said. I found myself avoiding dinners and other social gatherings and even sniping about the degenerating experience outside of meetings.
It wasn’t until a few years into this slide that I realized I was as much to blame as anyone for the change.
Too many management articles — including many I’ve written — serve to comfort those afflicted by the misdeeds of others. Authors invite you into an article with tacit collusion: describing some miscreant then doling out advice for how to fix “him” or “her.” The unstated conceit is that you and I are pretty good folk — if we could only figure out how to deal with the rabble.
Well, I’ve got none of that for you. In the 30 years I’ve been mucking about organizations, I’ve come to see that those who spend the most time cursing the darkness are the least likely to be holding a candle.
I certainly wasn’t helping the situation with the board I was on. As an organizational “expert,” I was proficient at enumerating its dysfunctions. I could catalog the creeping evidence of covert struggles for status, power, and resources.
- Status-building. I cringed when people spoke and acted for the purpose of garnering respect rather than building the enterprise. For example, a tardy board member would take eight minutes to explain how his late arrival was the inevitable consequence of multiple “liquidity events” he had to attend to that morning.
- Power-wielding. I resented it when a colleague referenced who supported an idea more than why the idea had merit in relationship to our mission. Not unlike announcing, “Tony Stark thinks we should look more at East Africa as our next geography.”
- Resource-competition. I was disgusted when budgeting decisions were turned into tests of loyalty. “Do you prefer Lynda’s debt strategy or Cal’s equity fund?”
Power, personality, and prestige loomed larger as our mission receded in the rear view mirror.
Fifty years ago, the Austrian-born organizational psychologist Fred Fiedler made a fascinating discovery. He administered a survey to employees asking them to describe their “least-preferred coworker” on a series of scales from “hostile” to “supportive” and “insincere” to “sincere,” for example. Some people derided their least-liked colleague with every harsh adjective they were offered — while others offered a more nuanced and tempered view. The surprise was that Fielder found that the magnitude of the criticism had more to say about the respondent than their coworker. To this day, the Least-Preferred Coworker instrument is a reliable way of inviting prickly professionals to unwittingly self-identify as those who are most difficult to get along with.
What Fiedler has made clear — and what became obvious to…