With every client, there is that one moment when they trust me enough to talk about the person that is making their job (and likely the organization or company) miserable.  Almost without exception they express that, although they’ve tried, they just can’t find a way to work with this person.

So what do you do if you’re on a board and you just can’t seem to get along with one of your fellow directors?  

Of course the easy solution (and one that many hope for) is that either the other person leaves the board, or you move on.

But here’s the reality: you both joined the board because you believed in the organization and thought you had something to offer.  So if one of you leaves, the organization potentially loses an important resource.  While sometimes this is the only answer, I’ve found that these conflicts can be minimized using a couple of tools.

That person who is driving you nuts is likely different from you either in their personality or in their driving interests.

Talking another person’s language or figuring out what drives them might just be enough to smooth over the bumps and conflict that are frustrating you.  However, it is equally important to figure out your own story and what the bigger win is for you.

The greatest discovery of my generation is that a human being can alter his life by altering his attitude.
— William James

There have been many books written in the last couple of decades about positive thinking or changing your attitude.  And lots of them are extremely helpful.  But sometimes it’s not enough to just “decide” to change how you feel about the person that’s driving you nuts.  You need a reason, a bigger win, to make that leap.

As a director, that reason will come from answering the question “Why did you join the board in the first place?”.

We all join boards for different reasons. But here are some of the reasons people tell me they join boards:


“I believe in what the organization is trying to accomplish.”

Whether the board of a for-profit or a non-profit organization, this is a compelling reason to join a board.  Sometimes this is easier to pinpoint with a non-profit, as these are often agencies centered around providing services to a population with a certain need.  But smaller service boards also attract people who believe in the organization – think about a figure skating club or a strata council.  When it comes to for-profit board members, I am often told that they were attracted to the business because there was something innovative about either the product or the business model that they believed was important.

“I want to learn something.”

Sometimes the reason to sit on a board (either paid or volunteer) is because there is something you want to learn or try.  It may be something the organization does that you want to understand from the inside.  Perhaps there is another board member that you’ve been quietly watching and hoping for an opportunity to work with, perhaps even receive some mentorship from.  Boards are an opportunity to try something new or develop a skill that isn’t nurtured in your personal or professional life.  Perhaps there’s an opportunity to do more public speaking,  chair a meeting, learn to take meaningful minutes, be involved in strategic planning, or learn to conduct a performance review.  All of these are fantastic reasons to join a board!

“I have skills I want to share.”

When my kids were in school, there were often requests for parents to bake goodies for fundraising bake sales or school social events.  My response was always that I was NOT the person for this job but if they needed someone to sit on a district policy committee or write a funding proposal, then they should absolutely call on me.  (Other parents made WAY better cookies than me and felt better sharing their baking skills instead of proposal writing.)  Now, businesses will ask me if I’d like to be an employee but a better fit is to include me as a strategic consultant or advisory board member.  Boards provide an opportunity to use skills in a way that makes it possible to contribute outside of usual personal or professional lives.   Sometimes this one is as simple as “they knew I had certain skills they needed on their board so they asked me…”

“I want to improve my resume, or enhance my reputation, or grow my network.”

Sometimes people shy away from admitting that this is a reason for sitting on a board.  Realistically it’s probably not your only reason for choosing THIS board. In order to have an impact on your resume, reputation, or network; a board has to meet certain criteria.  It must be a board you think you can contribute to in a way that will be recognized.  It must be functional enough that being part of the organization is a positive reflection on you (or at least has a chance of becoming one.) There must be at least a few other people involved with the organization that you believe will be part of developing your resume, reputation, or network.

“My friend-neighbour-sister-in-law-doctor-yoga-instructor asked me to sit on the board.”

This answer can be tricky.  If you combine it with some of the answers above, it makes an okay package.  But on its own, it can lead to frustration, resentment, and lack of engagement.  Although you might wish to help people who are obviously committed to the organization, “feeling bad saying no” is rarely enough incentive to do the work required from a director.  Often this request is accompanied by a rationale something like, “We only have 4 meetings a year and you don’t really need to do anything, we just need another member to make sure we have quorum.”  Beware…this is NOT something you want to say yes to without some other reason. In fact, board members have specific roles they are legally required to fulfill. Just attending 4 meetings a year to keep a seat warm isn’t going to be enough.  Take some time to evaluate what other reasons you might have for committing to a director’s position before you join the board.


So think about it.

If you joined the board because you thought you might add to the organization, learn something, get a chance to use your skills, or enhance your reputation…are the places you’re in conflict with the other board member really something you need to continue to hold on to?  Is it possible to agree to disagree?  Or better yet, use the passion you both bring to the table (and are currently using to fuel a conflict) to create an even better solution for the organization?  What could you do that would still leave your dignity – and the other person’s –  intact and take a step toward doing what you joined the board to do?

Sometimes we get so stuck in our behaviour, or we are so certain that someone is doing something wrong or just to make us mad, that we forget why we came here in the first place…

Don’t let this be a road block for you and your board. See what you can do to minimize conflict so you can maximize the difference you can make!