Every Association’s Major Concern: Working with Difficult People

It seems every association has at least one: a difficult person. For the executive director and Board, it takes a special set of skills to deal with that person effectively. Failure to do so can create more than one, and even lead to an epidemic of difficult people.

Why do associations encounter this particular challenge? Most association boards and committees are selected from membership. They are generally unpaid, volunteer positions. Many companies take advantage of association membership, sending their rising stars and good managers to work on boards and committees with the intent of making a community or industry difference. Often, it improves the participant’s leadership skills, savvy and experience. It’s one of the fastest ways for a person to develop their people skills – or demonstrate their deficiencies.

As executive director or board president, you may look at the prospective incumbent as an external challenge and ask, “How can I work effectively with difficult people?” A better first question might be to ask yourself “What are some of the key issues that we need to address internally that can prevent people from becoming difficult to work with?”

Suggestion 1: Orientation

Remember that perception is reality and “being difficult”  exists in the eye of the beholder. Usually, people are perceived as difficult when they are unaware of or unsure how to properly utilize systems and structures. Unfortunately, many associations do not adequately train new board and committee members, citing the common “shortage of time factor.” They also do not refresh and remind returning members about how to work with one another. Even the most minor of conflicts can create a potential problem through misunderstanding, and can become very time consuming.

Set up an orientation process for all Board members. Develop a program that will address how the Board works together, including information on procedures, agreements, issues pending, as well as governance protocol. Be sure the information is sent in written form before the session, with sufficient time for busy people to read and process before their orientation session. Then, review key points, and include exercises for each person to get to know others and have some fun – people learn better in an interactive process. As a bonus, include an assessment to help people clarify their own inherent strengths and weaknesses when working with others, and clarify for themselves, and others, situations that might cause them to be perceived as a difficult team member.

Suggestion 2: Integration

Appoint an experienced board member to mentor each new board member, and ask the pair to meet regularly for at least a few months. Encourage (or require) all Board members to attend all regularly scheduled association events. This helps keep them current on issues important to members, upcoming industry or professional changes, why prospective members may be hesitating to join, and potential opportunities for improvement.

Suggestion 3: Communication

Usually, when you have a new Board member, some of the communication styles the group took for granted will no longer work. Changes in people mean changes in communication style, and any change may get in the way of messages being heard and understood. A reality check will answer the question, “Is this working for everyone?”

If members talk over others or a leader cuts people short, the group may be headed for trouble. A new member (who may be trying to share an idea or ask a question) may be offended. Often, they will take that information back to their company. Presto! Someone is now perceived as “difficult to work with.”  Perception rules the day.

While it’s critical to pay attention to your agenda and timetable during a meeting, remember that a primary consideration for people working on the Board is that they wish to contribute by being heard and respected. Usually, people depend upon the communication style of the other Board members as an indicator of those values. When respect is lacking, people may challenge others to see just where they stand – the genesis of a “difficult person.” To assess your own Board’s strength, ask: Do Board members come to meetings willingly, or do you have to persuade them?

In one instance, a newly elected board president was offended when a new board member indicated that it wasn’t appropriate to be cut off. The new president stated, “It’s not personal. I simply needed to stay on track with our agenda.” The new president was insecure about her ability to run a Board meeting and hid behind “Robert’s Rules of Order” as her excuse for not taking the time to truly listen to the new member and move concerns forward. Unfortunately, the conflict led to the new board member being perceived as a “difficult” person. This leads to resentment, and individuals and their respective companies questioning the value of their membership, and their investment of time and dollars.

 Suggestion 4: Build your reputation by handling the “elephants”

Not handling issues as they arise, or choosing to handle them by not talking about them, will eventually catch up with any organization. Those who either avoid the issue or insist on resolving it can be perceived as being difficult. The “elephant in the room” may not be an easy issue to address. Some may be in denial that the issue exists, and others may have very different opinions about what the real issue is. However, if everyone’s opinion is heard and everyone is truly listening, it’s amazing how utilizing “persuasive listening skills” can make a significant impact on moving an organization forward, and effectively resolving virtually any issue. Simple listening can counter the perception of someone being “difficult”.

One large association, many years ago, discovered at the last minute they were about to make the huge mistake of presenting an award to a person not eligible to receive it. They were in a quandary as to what to do, yet each person’s opinions were sought before a decision was made. They ultimately gave the award to the correct person. It was a hard decision with potentially significant ramifications; but it has not been mentioned since – because the potential “elephant” was handled effectively.

Suggestion 5: Handle change gracefully

Any effort to change can be a challenge when people wish to hang onto the past. Often, they understood how to use the old system, make it work, and ensure their company received the greatest benefit. To help association members understand how to incorporate changes, take time to get everyone on the same page. Provide background information supporting the need for change. “Sound like a parrot” by delivering a consistent message. Resolve any misunderstandings or lack of clarity as people voice their concerns or complaints. Don’t wait for them to be viewed as “difficult.”

What if all of these suggestions have been implemented, and someone is still considered difficult to work with?

 It’s time for with the executive director or Board president, and possibly another trusted Board member, to talk directly with the “difficult” person. Openly and positively hear what he or she has to say. At this point, you may find that this person may not be a good fit with the Board if his/her commitments are very different than the Board’s. If that is the case, make it a win-win by providing the opportunity for the Board member to resign. Make a public thank you for the person’s contributions, and move on. If all parties involved decide to keep the member on the Board, put together a plan to ensure success for everyone.


Associations face special challenges when it comes to filling important roles in their organizations. By creating a plan and taking a few simple steps to make sure the dynamics of the organization are being handled correctly, you can avoid falling into the trap of contributing to the creation of difficult people.

© Jeannette L. Seibly & John W. Howard, 2006

Jeannette L. Seibly, Principal of SeibCo — your partner in developing  work and career strategies for selection, results and growth, We improve your bottom line!   JLSeibly@gmail.com 

John W. Howard, Ph.D., owner of Performance Resources, Inc. helps businesses of all sizes increase their profits by reducing their people costs. His clients hire better, fire less, manage better, and keep their top performers.  jwh@prol.ws

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