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?
“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.
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.
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.
„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.