Why Boards Micro-Manage
and How to Get Them to Stop
|by Hildy Gottlieb
Copyright ReSolve, Inc.
If we were to ask organizational
leaders for their top three complaints about boards, micromanagement would
absolutely make that list. Both board members and CEOs talk about board
micromanagement as if it were the weather - they complain about it, but they
assume there is not much they can do about it.
Unlike the weather, there is
something you can do to stop a board from micromanaging. The first step is to
see micromanagement for what it really is. Only then can you determine how to
get boards to stop.
In our experience, micromanagement
is not a problem unto itself. It is a symptom of several problems. These are
listed in no particular order, and they are NOT mutually exclusive. As a matter
of fact, they are often interrelated.
Problem #1:The board has no clear
sense of its role in the organization, and no systems to guide that role. Board
Members think this is what they should be doing.
Board members are generally chosen
because they are movers and shakers - they know how to get things done. Without
a clear understanding of the role of the board, Board Members simply assume
their job is to roll up their sleeves and do what they do best - get things
And so they scrutinize the
accounting and the level of activity of the line employees; they talk directly
to clients and employees, and then take up those client/employee concerns at
board meetings. Everywhere they look, there are things that could be done
better, and because they think that's what their job is supposed to be, they
pitch right in to help get that job done right. Very often, board members
micromanage because they think that's what they should be doing. And there are
no systems in place that guide them to do anything differently.
Problem #2: The board has no policies
or procedures delineating appropriate roles for staff vs. the
This is related to the first
problem, but extends it further. Boards that micromanage generally have no
clear set of procedures to define which decisions belong to the staff, and
which belong to the board. With neither guidelines nor any discussion of these
issues, board members venture into the staff's area of responsibility, simply
because there is nothing telling them not to.
Problem #3: Most people have no
experience in leading. Our real-life experience is mostly
Most of us don't "lead" in our
everyday lives. Most of us "do". The laundry and the dishes don't get done by
leading; the report doesn't get written, the engine rebuilt. The customer isn't
served by our "leading" but by our "doing".
When people serve on a board, they
assume "doing" is how they will help the organization. They feel proud to share
what they are so good at, until they are reprimanded for doing it, at which
point they are confused. Why is everyone complaining, when
doing is why they asked me here in the first
Which leads to
Problem #4: Board Members are
recruited to perform tasks, not to lead.
We've all heard it, and you may
actually have said it. "We need an accountant on the board, or an attorney, or
a PR person, etc." Organizations invite folks on the board to perform pro bono
staff roles. Then when they start doing what they were invited to do, they are
accused of micromanaging! The accountant on the board is asked to review the
books, and before you know it, that accountant is critical of everything the
bookkeeper does, including where she keeps her pencils! (Don't laugh - we've
actually experienced this.)
Remember: if you invited board
members to serve as volunteer staff, they are doing exactly what you asked them
Problem #5: Remnants of
If your board has just experienced
(or is in the midst of experiencing) a crisis, they have had to jump in with
both feet to get the job done and make sure the organization survives. Perhaps
the CEO has just quit with no notice, or was in a car accident. In times of
crisis, the board may have to act outside its role, as they may be the only
ones left to do so. (That is one of the reasons we have boards - to provide the
organization with continuity.)
Once the crisis time is over,
though, if the board doesn't have a clear sense of its own role vs. that of the
staff, it will be VERY hard for that board to stop its management role. The
danger here is that the memory of crisis becomes institutionalized, lingering
long beyond the memories of just the current board members. These residual
behaviors will likely be inadvertently taught to new board members, as they
learn from watching. The board continues to act as if there is a crisis long
after the crisis is over, micromanaging from some cellular level that is handed
down over time until no one knows where it came from - it is simply the
boards culture - the way things are done.
Problem #6: Fear
At the root of virtually all
micromanagement is fear. Fear that if they don't do it, no one else will (or no
one will do it as well). Fear that the organization will fail, will have
horrible things happen to it. Fears about money, about bad press. When
individuals behave badly it is usually because they feel their comfort or
security is threatened in some way. When boards behave badly (and
micromanagement is just one symptom of this), they are usually concerned about
the health and safety of the organization. If you can keep in mind that boards
micromanage because they care and therefore have fears and concerns, and NOT
because they are power hungry control freaks, then you will be better equipped
to get them to stop.
Solving Problems, Or Moving
Once we acknowledge that
micromanagement is a symptom of one or more of these problems, our natural
tendency is to try to solve the problems. Typically, organizations work first
on creating policies that clearly delineate the role of the staff from the role
of the board. To accomplish that, the group may seek a consultant or workshop
to teach the board about its own role, to help the board understand what it
should and should not do.
This problem-solving approach,
while well-meaning, typically has one of two effects:
- Nothing much changes, or
- Everything changes.
Unfortunately those changes are often followed by the unintended consequence of
a swing to the other end of the spectrum: The board becomes disengaged, as
their new governance system was designed almost entirely in reaction to their
initial micromanaging ways.
One Part Compassion, One Part
In our experience, problem-solving
cannot solve complex problems. Yes, that seems counterintuitive. But the
reality we have seen in the prior section is that problem-solving approaches
tend to be narrowly focused, when the problems themselves are inter-related and
complex. Problem-solving tends to aim at the symptom (micromanagement) in a
vacuum, rather than addressing everything that relates to causing that symptom.
Because of its narrow focus, problem-solving tends to lead to unintended
consequences - like the disengaged boards noted above.
So then, what can work? The answer
is to look beyond the situation you do NOT want (the problem), and instead aim
your efforts squarely at achieving the situation you DO want. Instead of
aiming to solve the problem of micromanagement, you will aim at creating an
effective, high functioning board.
To accomplish that will require one
part compassion, and one part wisdom. The compassion will help you ease board
members through their own well-meaning reasons for micromanaging. This will
require not just that those micromanaging board members change, but that
you change your assumptions about their reasons for doing what
they are currently doing.
From there, wisdom will guide you
to proactively create situations where the board will simply have no reason to
Compassion: Why Boards
As we noted in Problem # 6 above,
at the root of virtually all micromanagement is fear.
Fear, concern, and worry (and all
the other words we use for this emotional reaction) are all responses to
feeling threatened. They arise from our natural instinct for self-preservation.
Board members could be afraid that the finances are shaky. Or that the finances
are ok now, but you never know. They could be unsure about a surge in
organizational growth, or a sense of stagnation.
The fear could be personal - an
individual may be afraid that his/her position of authority on the board will
be threatened by a particular action. Or they could simply be feeling unsure of
their own role within the organization.
Regardless of the cause, as a
general rule, when folks act badly, you can pretty well guess they feel
threatened in some way, either personally or on behalf of the
Consider what the best
practice in governance dictates boards should be holding themselves
accountable for - legal oversight, operational oversight, financial oversight.
Those internal oversight functions,
done in the way most boards handle them, all tend to be reactive, primarily
aimed at limiting risk and liability. These are the functions current standards
and practices instruct as the main role of a board.
They also are functions that
virtually drip with fear. No wonder boards micromanage!
Boards are right to be concerned
that the organization may be financially unstable. They are right to be
concerned that the CEO has no succession plan in the event she wins the lottery
and heads to Tahiti. They are right to be concerned that they aren't paying
their staff what they can get by working in the private sector. These are
important issues, and the board is ultimately accountable for all of
So the first step is to stop
treating micromanagement as if it is a disease that comes from a few
control-freak board members. The first step is to be compassionate. Boards that
micromanage are not evil demons sent to make your life
Compassion leads us to realize:
Board members micromanage because they care, they are scared, and they
dont know what else to do.
If we can be grateful for the fact
that they care; if we can compassionately acknowledge that none of us acts well
when were scared; and if we can compassionately encourage them to learn
how to be more proactive than reactive - their micromanagement will go
That is where wisdom comes
Wisdom: Creating Engaged Boards Who
As noted above, if we aim at
solving the micromanagement symptom, we will only get so far. However, if we
look beyond the problem we do NOT want, and aim our efforts instead at the
positive situation we DO want, we will solve our problems on the way to
creating something positive.
What would that positive scenario
be for your board? What would you like them to be?
Engaged? Energized? Passionate
about the mission and passionate about making your organizations vision a
reality in your community? Perhaps a board that knows its role, and understands
how to do its job? A board that communicates well? Engages others in the work
of the organization? A board that is more proactive than
You can already see that if that
described your board, they would not be micromanaging. You can see that their
micromanagement problem could be solved as they reach for the best possible end
The following approaches will help
you create that positive, community-focused, proactive board in a way that is
honest and compassionate about their current fears.
Encouraging the Board to Want
If boards micromanage in part because they think that is what they
are supposed to be working on, how can you encourage your board to want more
than that minimum level of fiduciary oversight, especially if they think that
is not their job?
The following exercise will help
your board want to learn more about how to lead and govern for the boards
highest potential. Its purpose is to inspire and encourage the board to want to
learn a different way, rather than prescribing that they must. It will do that
by helping board members see that there is important and exciting work they are
NOT doing because they are spending their time on the
Have board members review all the
boards agenda items for the past several meetings. For each agenda item,
mark which category it fits:
Is this activity a
duplication or review of a task staff already does or has done? Is it a rubber
stamp of a staff recommendation / staff initiated item?
Is this a review / discussion
of something that already happened? (This will include staff reports, committee
reports, financial reports, etc., most of which review PAST
Does the item pertain to the
organizations core values? Is it a discussion of how decisions are made,
how actions are determined to be right or wrong, how the board ensure the
organization is walking its talk?
M (Vision &
Is this a discussion of the
effect the organization has in the community? A discussion of the impact the
organization will create for individuals and for the community? Is it an item
about how you will make more of a difference in peoples
Tally up the time your board spends
on each of these items. What percentage of your time are you spending
discussing things the staff is primarily responsible for? What percentage are
you spending on things that have already occurred?
What percentage of your time are
you spending talking about the impact the organization is making and has the
potential to make in the community? What percentage of your time are you
spending on the values and ethics that guide your decisions?
Once the board sees both what it is
spending its time on, and (most importantly) what it has the potential to spend
its time on, you can begin to shift the agenda to spend more time looking
forward than looking back. The board can begin to consider the proactive
leadership function of governance, in addition to the reactive oversight
functions. They can begin to govern for what is possible, rather than governing
for what they are afraid of.
(This article may help to explain the leadership role of a
Addressing Fear through
The board does its work in two places - in annual
planning sessions and at the board table during regular meetings. First
lets consider how boards can plan proactively. That will turn your annual
planning session into the first stop in preventing the reactive fear that can
lead to micromanagement.
In a proactive plan, the board
(working with key staff) proactively determines what they want success to look
like in the community they serve. As a result of your efforts, what do
you want to be different in the community? (Note that this is not
reactive planning that looks to solve community problems but
instead looks to proactively to create the community you want, solving problems
along the way.)
To ensure the organization is
healthy enough to accomplish its community-driven goals, the board and staff
will also review all the organizations internal operational functions.
For each and every operational function of the organization, the group
- What do we need to have in
place to be successful in achieving our mission?
- What liability issues do we
fear might harm our chances for success?
Personnel and finance. Facilities
and regulatory issues. Cultural competence and administrative support. The
group will answer those two questions for every single operational function of
That simple step within the larger
planning process will get both the boards fears and their aspirations out
on the table, under the planning banner that says, If we are to create a
better future in our community, our organization must be strong.
From each item on that list, the
board and staff can then create a plan to proactively encourage what they DO
want, and to proactively prevent what they do NOT want. In this one step, the
board and staff will have worked together to eliminate the fear that feeds the
This planning process is described
in detail in The Pollyanna Principles (pages 136-184)
Addressing Fear at the Board
At board meetings, the conscious ear will begin to notice the
uncomfortable signs that precede micromanagement - the signs of fear. Listen
for the following phrases as signals:
- I'm concerned about...
- What will happen if we don't
- I'm worried about...
- Shouldn't we look into that?
- Shouldn't we do something about
When you hear fear arise,
proactively address the issue as follows:
Identify the real issue. What
are you afraid might happen?
Identify an action that can
be taken to prevent that bad result from happening
Assign responsibility for
that action. Remember, the board has one employee - the ED. So the board can
only make assignments to
the board itself,
the ED, who in turn can assign to other staff, or
Determine how you will
monitor whether the action was taken, to evaluate what to do
We are afraid because the
state is about to cut our funding. We have only a few months of cash
We will create a plan that
aims at making the organization financially independent within the next X
The staff will form a
committee of board, staff and outside supporters. The committee will be formed
by X date. The final plan will be provided to the board for review in X months.
The staff will report every X
months on its progress, with those updates automatically included in the
The balance in these 4 steps will
provide the board and staff with a framework that does two critical things.
First, it will prevent micromanagement of these tasks themselves (assigning,
monitoring), modeling a format for all the boards decision-making in the
future. Second, it addresses the real issues that can cause micromanagement in
the first place (identifying and taking preventative action).
The end result of this process is a
board that is proactively working to take as much proactive control as possible
over the things that very rightfully cause fear and concern.
The approach takes the anger out of
the work, by approaching these legitimate fears with compassion rather than
blame. And by creating systems that proactively address the root causes of
those fears while moving the organization forward, the board will have plenty
to work on that is not day-to-day.
They will be working on the reason
they joined the board in the first place - to make a difference. And that is
where the fun is!