Use your Board Cleverly

Some­ti­mes in small to mid-sized Civil-Socie­ty-Orga­niza­ti­ons (CSOs), my expe­ri­ence is that the Board only nomi­nal­ly exists. A cau­se might be that mem­bers were tal­ked into joi­ning the Board wit­hout real deter­mi­na­ti­on (“some­bo­dy has to do this”). Or sala­ried employees form the Board. The lat­ter may lead to con­flict of inte­rest, sin­ce the Board as gover­ning body should set the stra­te­gic cour­se for the CSO as well as gui­de and con­trol manage­ment, not act as spo­kesper­son for the staff, at least not in the first place.

Good Boards in my expe­ri­ence are made up of com­mi­t­ed (often older) peo­p­le, who bring exper­ti­se as well as expe­ri­ence from a long (work) life. They are loy­al to the organization’s mis­si­on and don’t have to fear loss of inco­me should your CSO go into cri­sis. All this, in the best case, enables the­se peo­p­le to think stra­te­gi­cal­ly and out of the box in the inte­rest of the organization.

No doubt set­ting up your Board will cau­se con­sidera­ble addi­tio­nal work (and hea­da­ches) initi­al­ly: Howe­ver, I sug­gest that you con­sider the fol­lo­wing ques­ti­ons in order to choo­se the right people.

  • Who can give good advice for our work wit­hout pla­cing their own inte­rests first?
  • Who is wil­ling to take on respon­si­bi­li­ty and invest time for a num­ber of years?
  • Who will be an inte­gra­ting fac­tor with respect to Board, staff and manage­ment, crea­ting col­la­bo­ra­ti­on rather than conflict
  • Who has essen­ti­al skills and qua­li­fi­ca­ti­ons that you other­wi­se will have to pay for, e.g. as a lawy­er or MBA?
  • Who can open doors to donors, govern­ment agen­ci­es and other orga­niza­ti­ons that are important for you?
  • Who can gene­ra­te trust and some­ti­mes be the face of the organization?
  • Who will increase diver­si­ty by being able to share expe­ri­en­ces and insights that are other­wi­se lack­ing in your team and organization?
  • Who has the stan­ding and skills to media­te when the­re are con­flicts in the team or bet­ween team and manage­ment? And, if you feel that an ombuds­per­son for staff would be bene­fi­ci­al, who could act as such?

What does my organization need in order to learn?

Lear­ning Orga­niza­ti­ons” (LO) are orga­niza­ti­ons in moti­on, crea­tively adap­ting to chan­ging envi­ron­ments. They under­stand that the deve­lo­p­ment of their staff and teams crea­tes the basis for their suc­cess as orga­niza­ti­ons, no mat­ter whe­ther they are a muni­ci­pal admi­nis­tra­ti­on, a fac­to­ry that pro­du­ces metal parts, or a hotel. 

One fac­tor that is indis­pensable for LO is to stop see­ing human error as flaw that bet­ter be cover­ed up. Wit­hout errors and mista­kes the­re will not be pro­gress. Orga­niza­ti­ons should, in my view, do all they can to redu­ce the fear of making mista­kes among their staff, kno­wing that workers who con­tri­bu­te a lot will soo­ner or later make mista­kes. The only way for me to not make mista­kes – if at all pos­si­ble – is to fol­low the same work rou­ti­ne over and over like a machi­ne. Lucki­ly, this kind of job (whe­re what you do might as well be done by a machi­ne) has been dying out in our socie­ties for quite some time. 

How do you crea­te favorable con­di­ti­ons for lear­ning in your orga­ni­sa­ti­on? Brain rese­arch points to a com­bi­na­ti­on and inter­de­pen­dence of cogni­ti­on and emo­ti­ons in suc­cessful lear­ning. Only whe­re I can do some­thing with joy and exci­te­ment will my brain deve­lop new capa­ci­ties. That is why all orga­niza­ti­ons face the chall­enge to crea­te oppor­tu­ni­ties for their staff to work and learn with plea­su­re and exci­te­ment. This may mean for staff to chan­ge their tasks every now and then. Or to crea­te space for trai­nings that allow per­so­nal growth (even if at a first glan­ce the­re is no con­nec­tion to the work that peo­p­le do). Or it may mean to rely more on self-orga­niza­ti­on. The­re are as many pos­si­ble ways to inspi­re joy and lear­ning at your work­places as the­re are dif­fe­rent organizations.

Don't lose your face

I do not want you to lose your face

When the rela­ti­onship bet­ween an employee and her or his super­vi­sor or manage­ment turns sour, mutu­al trust is lost. Both sides have oppo­sing views on who is to bla­me. On the who­le, not so many job com­ple­te­ly fail. But if they do, the result quite often is a pain­ful and deman­ding situa­ti­on both for the employee and the supervisor/employer, cal­ling for careful atten­ti­on and good com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on. You gon­na lose your face. In the worst case, a con­flict can send shock waves through an orga­niza­ti­on, with peo­p­le tal­king bad about each other or even start­ing an inter­nal war, poten­ti­al­ly dama­ging the organization.

Protection of trust

My advice to manage­ment in such a situa­ti­on is to lea­ve no doubt that all employees – inclu­ding peo­p­le who­se jobs don’t go well – as part of the orga­niza­ti­on enjoy pro­tec­tion of trust. Gua­ran­te­e­ing pro­tec­tion of trust shouldn’t keep manage­ment from being quite clear about rules and expec­ta­ti­ons or even ter­mi­na­te a job if all else fails. What it does mean, though, is that manage­ment needs to take gre­at care to make sure that the employee does not lose her or his face, e.g. due to indis­cre­ti­ons or bad talk. It is deci­dedly in the inte­rest of the orga­niza­ti­on that con­flicts are being dealt with in a respon­si­ble and civi­li­zed man­ner, howe­ver dif­fi­cult that may be.

Empowering team leader

Empowering leadership in a team

An acquain­tance of mine works for a lar­ge public insti­tu­ti­on. She recent­ly told me how dif­fi­cult team work has beco­me due to an over­sen­si­ti­ve col­le­ague. In fact, the situa­ti­on in her team has beco­me so unbe­ara­ble, that after a vaca­ti­on she had lost all moti­va­ti­on to return to her job. All attempts so far to resol­ve the situa­ti­on have fai­led, becau­se the per­son in ques­ti­on refu­ses to talk. This is a good exam­p­le, I think, for how important it is for a team to func­tion as a „sys­tem“, a social orga­nism, in order to work productively.

What should be done?

Tog­e­ther we reflec­ted on what should be done to ease this dif­fi­cult situa­ti­on. We figu­red out that res­truc­tu­ring the team’s phy­si­cal work­places would bring some reli­ef. In my view, the team lea­der, a woman, should assu­me respon­si­bi­li­ty to impro­ve the situa­ti­on. Howe­ver, she needs to pre­vent a situa­ti­on whe­re the over­sen­si­ti­ve col­le­ague is labe­led „the pro­blem“ and ost­ra­ci­zed. I would advi­se the team lea­der to con­sult with all rele­vant actors and then draw up a con­cre­te plan for what to do, asking manage­ment for sup­port if necessary.

Graffiti: Hamsterrad, treadmill, vacation

Shut down the email treadmill

When­ever I return from a vaca­ti­on, I know that the­re will be up to 1000 emails wai­ting for me. I will need 2 – 3 weeks to catch up, negle­c­ting other tasks. Some­ti­mes I think it might be saner to not go on vaca­ti­ons anymore.“

This is the depres­sing rea­li­ty for mil­li­ons of employees: It has beco­me incre­asing­ly impos­si­ble to dis­en­ga­ge ones­elf from the ste­ady stream of elec­tro­nic com­mu­ni­ca­ti­on, more and more via tablet and smart­phone. Reasonable employ­ers have long rea­li­zed that the pres­su­re to be con­stant­ly online is harmful to their employees, doing a dis­ser­vice to their orga­niza­ti­on in the long run.

But is there an alternative?

I recom­mend that you tho­rough­ly check at which work­places email ser­vice can be cut off during employees’ vaca­ti­on. Peo­p­le sen­ding mails to them would get the usu­al absence noti­fi­ca­ti­on pro­vi­ding pho­ne num­ber and email address of the per­son stan­ding in. Addi­tio­nal­ly they would be infor­med that their mail will neither be saved nor ans­we­red in order to pro­tect the employee’s vaca­ti­on and recrea­ti­on. It will then be up to them to deci­de: Do I need to cont­act the per­son stan­ding in or can I wait until the employee’s back in the office?

Cle­ar­ly, in a smal­ler orga­niza­ti­on this may not work for some manage­ment or fund­rai­sing posi­ti­ons. But even here, space for crea­ti­vi­ty might be grea­ter than you first think. Posi­ti­ve side effects are: Inter­nal regu­la­ti­ons for sub­sti­tu­ting in someone’s absence will be taken more serious­ly, sin­ce all inco­ming com­mu­ni­ca­ti­ons are not going to crash down on the per­son retur­ning from a vaca­ti­on. Employees will feel less irre­placeable, which is good, and your part­ners will get an exam­p­le for how work can be orga­ni­zed in a more huma­ne way.

Why not use such a step in the inte­rest of your employees’ health to crea­te posi­ti­ve publi­ci­ty for your orga­niza­ti­on? You might even set off a trend among your peers.