View Full Version : Today, my Board Chair hung up on me...

4-11-12, 10:30pm
... in the middle of a tense conversation. She was just... gone. I tried calling her back, texted her because I initially though something had happened, and emailed her. Nothing. She later made calls to others on our team, and has been working on our shared Google docs. WTF?? Our communications have been difficult in the last month, but not dreadful, and I am, well, astonished.

I am at a loss as to what to say next; however, I would like to email her on Monday and let her know that I need to know what is going on. How in the hell do people get to be adults, and comport themselves like this??

4-12-12, 12:19am
Wow -- that is difficult. I've had difficult work calls where I WANTED to hang up, or had the feeling the other person did, but we always plowed through and generally got to some kind of resolution.

Most likely this person is extremely conflict averse, so it may be hard to get them to re-engage, but it has to be done. I would continue to reach out, both by email and phone, with a short, non-confrontational message, something along the lines of:

Sorry things got tense. There are obviously strong feelings about this on all sides, which is difficult but also good because it shows how much we all care. We need to find a way to work through this issue together. If the current style or format of communication isn't working, let's brainstorm about alternatives. I value your experience and insights as the board chair and am committed to working with you in a productive, results-oriented way. What next steps can we take to work toward a resolution on this matter and improve our communication and collaboration going forward?

You can do this, redfox -- I'm sure of that. Whether the board chair can or not remains to be seen. If not, best that you see the lay of the land now so that you know what you are in for. Fingers crossed that it all works out.


4-12-12, 1:10am
Thanks. Good words. She's been terse with me for over a month, and I know life can be hard... she & I have very different ways of thinking, and I've very much appreciated her perspectives. I just cannot wrap my mind around simply disappearing... when I read about the earthquakes off the west coast, I thought maybe that's what happened... well, I'm confident we'll figure it out.

Here's what I emailed earlier:

XXX, what the heck happened to you this afternoon? I am at a complete loss here - it finally occurred to me that you likely hung up on me without warning. While I am relieved that nothing awful happened to you, I have to say that this is a new situation for me, and I don't quite know what to say.

Would you please give me the courtesy of letting me know what happened from your perspective, and re-open communications? I would appreciate hearing something back from you by Monday.

4-12-12, 5:24am
Oh, well, email already sent. I could see that coming from a boss to a subordinate that had to "take it" but to a board member???????

Float On
4-12-12, 6:46am
If she's been "terse for over a month" there is a personality thing going on and she may be finding you difficult to work with.
I like it that you said "please re-open communication" but it sounds like it may be beyond that for her, especially if she is now talking to others on the team but not you.

4-12-12, 12:14pm
Oh, well, email already sent. I could see that coming from a boss to a subordinate that had to "take it" but to a board member???????

Hi Sweetana... Please tell me more. I don't understand what you're hinting at.

4-12-12, 5:15pm
My reaction was similar to sweetana's when I saw your message -- the tone feels off given your relative positions. You are ED and deserve to be treated respectfully, but she's chair of the board, which is an extremely important position, and has been there longer than you. Although her actions were highly inappropriate, your message could easily be read as being accusatory -- "would you please give me the courtesy" is basically saying she is being rude by not taking your calls/responding to your emails. That is true, but it puts her in a very defensive position. Personally i would have been more concilliatory in my message, similar to what I drafted above -- take the "wow, something unfortunate has happened here, can we figure out what it is TOGETHER and get back on better footing" approach rather than the "what the heck is wrong with you?" approach, which is how your message reads to me.

The ladder of inference stuff may be a good way to reroute this, actually. Go back to the facts. Acknowledge you were having a tense discussion and the call got cut off. Ask why and what you can do together to address both the immediate and the underlying situation. Her hanging up is actually a pretty classic stress response -- some people do things they wouldn't normally do when they feel a situation is getting out of control. To someone who is extremely conflict averse, what feels to you like a normal disagreement may feel like WWIII. You would think that someone who has spent years working on communal living issues would have a better toolkit for dealing with conflict, but maybe her strategy has always been to supress and run away. Some people are also VERY bad at phone communication. I am one of those -- when you described how you are basically on your iphone and skype all day my gut reaction was "oh my god, what an awful job!" As an introvery, I would be completely drained by that.

It is what it is -- unfortunate, but hopefully you both (and the organization) can look at this as a an opportunity to look at what is working and what isn't in your work/communication style and come up with some adaptations that take everyone's needs and preferences into account.

Good luck working through it!


4-12-12, 7:49pm
Thanks. FWIW, she's been through a hellish 6 months, and has left phone meetings before in the middle of something & without warning. I consider her a friend, as well.

I'm trying to decide whether or not to let this be till Monday, or try another communication, along the lines of Ilhamo's wording.

4-12-12, 8:01pm
Sometimes the dynamics within the board itself create unbearable stress. Been there and done especially at a time of significant change in board structure, financing and role. Board members usually are an uneven bunch in experience and understanding.
While one may be a great chair in normal times, a chair may wonder what on earth one is doing serving on the board, nevermind chairing, when a significant transition or change or challenge is taking place.

4-12-12, 8:06pm
I'm trying to decide whether or not to let this be till Monday, or try another communication, along the lines of Ilhamo's wording.

A little time is never a bad idea in this kind of situation, if you can swing it . . .

4-12-12, 8:57pm
Ok, here's the re-do, and I am definitely dropping this now.


I've been thinking about how to reach out to you, and build a connection back to you. I don't know you well enough to know what the most effective approach is, so I'm trying another email. I'm sorry my email to you yesterday was sent in my confusion and hurt.

I'm also sorry things have been tense in the last while. There are obviously strong feelings happening for both of us. I hope we can find a way to work through this communication struggle together.

If the current style or format of communication isn't working, let's brainstorm about alternatives. I value your experience and insights as the board chair and am committed to working with you in a productive, results-oriented way.

What next steps can we take to work toward improving our communications and collaboration going forward?

Thanks so much in advance-

Anne Lee
4-13-12, 8:07pm
Very nice. Hope all resolves soon.

4-13-12, 8:51pm
Thanks, all, for your wonderful feedback. I spoke with the Board VP today, and she led the convo with a complaint about how the Board Chair has been treating her! We quicky came to the belief that our beloved Board Chair is in major burn-out, and snapping at folks.

This means we have a systems issue on our hands, and we need to systemically tackle why our leadership is overfunctioning to the point of burnout - it's not a blame game. The VP & I are exploring how best to surface the issue. We shall see!

Float On
4-13-12, 9:04pm
Well red, I'm sooooo glad to hear it's not you!:D

Hope you and the VP can come up with a plan.

4-13-12, 9:08pm
Volunteer board for a non-profit?

Around here, this sort of thing is indeed a classic sign of burnout in a board member, and usually it's not just evident in a single person. And often not just in the board itself.

Typically if not addressed it leads to:

- firing of staff/executive directors over some silly thing
- hand-wringing by the rest of the board
- damage control
- half the board leaving
- newly recruited board members wondering where everyone went all-of-a-sudden, and why they smell smoke....

Seems to repeat on about a 7 year cycle.

Term limits for board members, and specific board positions, have helped in the nonprofits I've seen around here.

4-13-12, 10:51pm
Term limits for board members, and specific board positions, have helped in the nonprofits I've seen around here.

LOVE term limits. Mainly as the volunteer! That way you have an "out" if you kind of don't want to keep doing it, but feel like you don't hate it enough yet to actually speak up and say "no more."

4-14-12, 8:43am
May I also suggest that board members police themselves. The constitution should be clear on board and individual member's activities but often board members take on more with the good of the organization as their motivation and it snowballs from there.

I just stepped out of a longterm role and repeatedly say when asked about leaving that I am either 'in' or 'out' but not straddling or hanging on. Just walking away from any comitment to a position for at least two years after a three-year term seems to work. I did do a three-yeasr extension during a growth period with legal issues after talking to board members stressing that I was very careful about not doing more. I had no regrets when I simply told them that I was done at the end of the extension.

FWIW, my experience on boards of all sizes is that most volunteers participate and simply 'go along to get along' with only about 2 who think outside the box, review and adhere to the constitution of the organization and initiate most of the board's needed efforts. Burnout is the result and the balance of the board resents them. Seven years is about how long it takes to all take place. Knowing when to step aside is very important but few orgs or volunteers do this.

4-16-12, 7:43pm
Ok, I am appreciating the feedback and suggestions. We do have term limits, thank goodness! And, my VP talked with the P today about her experiences, and got the air clear between them. I, however, have had a big fat zero in communications from the P. I've let it drop, but am at a total loss about next steps. Before the Board meeting this Friday, that is. I would really like to have some kind of communication before then. This is getting beyond weird. What do I do next?

4-17-12, 3:57am
Sometimes it is the best to go on without further communication, esp. when "face saving" is involved.
If everybody acts like nothing has happened it is almost like nothing has happened.
I work for an asian company and learned when to let things drop.

4-17-12, 7:04am
Sometimes in any conversation, one needs to let the processing take place in the other party's mind. There may be a power struggle going on based on history before your time. Be clear on your role, go into the meeting with the idea of serving the board and the organization in that role and if anything else arises, stress the need for following board-created boundaries so that each knows what is expected.

4-17-12, 10:13pm
I so love having this forum as a sounding board. I am proceeding along, assuming that our well regarded board P is burned out & will be in recovery as soon as she can.

This evening, I landed in Raleigh/Durham, NC. It is sooo gorgeous here! Pulling a geographic, however temporary, is a nice way to shift my energy.


5-2-12, 8:52pm
Well, I am finally getting a chance to talk with her tomorrow. I hope it goes well! I'm clear on what I need from her, and am open to hearing what she needs.

5-3-12, 4:42pm
Good luck - let us know how it turns out!

5-3-12, 10:50pm
The convo went well. She was calm, owned her behavior, apologized, and explained what had happened. I was quite grounded in my best self, used really good reflective listening, took nothing personally, and listened a lot. I'm pleased that I have such good anxiety management skills (at least for this!) and that I've been able to detach myself from her behavior towards me. It took a long time, IMHO, for her to get back to me, but we've been able to re-establish a professional relationship. I won't be investing in a friendship with her any more, but that's not a huge loss for me.

I was able to raise the organizational meta-issues that I think affected her blow-up, and we agreed to talk about them with the rest of our executive team later this summer, once our big June event is done. It will be a good conversation, I believe. Thanks, all, for being there with such good advice & support!

5-3-12, 11:03pm
Great news!

5-4-12, 10:43am
I sometimes hang up on people during conversations. Only a few times a year but if the other person is being abusive or if the person has taken over the conversation and not allowing me to participate/be heard, I hang up. It's better I do that than lose my temper.

So perhaps there was something you were doing to drive her to that level of frustration/anger?