Robert's Rules to the Rescue! Checking Rude and Unruly Board Members

During the Second World War, the United States and its allies invested a fortune in research to understand why so many people in the Axis nations seemed willing to believe the unbelievable, do the undoable, and follow leaders who seemed unhinged. Victory depended on understanding the ideology and behavior of the enemy. When the Cold War followed, these studies continued for the same reasons, and ultimately led to the development of a new field: Political Psychology. Believe it or not, the things learned during those times of great global strife can be applied on even the most micro level—at a co-op or condo board meeting, for example.

Do you have a board member—maybe even a board chair—who is closed-minded, argumentative, and simply must have his or her way? It's not an uncommon situation, and it makes the business of running a residential building community immeasurably more difficult. The truth is that while you are not going to have a lot of success changing a truly difficult person's thinking, you can manage their behavior—especially if you understand better what motivates it.

Personality Plus

Thanks to the research carried out over the last century, we now know that someone can have what we might label an “authoritarian” personality (AP) or a “democratic” personality (DP). Which camp the person falls into is determined primarily by the nature of their upbringing in terms of family, education, and peers. The AP and DP see things quite differently because they process information through entirely different mindsets. The AP may unwittingly destroy a democratic institution, believing that he or she is improving it. If you have an AP on your board, you are likely well aware that you face a challenge that should not be trivialized.

Part of the genius of the individuals who drafted our Constitution and constructed our democracy was that they understood this challenge as well—and long before the detailed research prompted by World War II. They understood that they needed to create a system whereby no one authoritarian person or small group would be able to dominate. They needed a process that would allow for the will of the many to prevail, yet not at the expense of the few. To this end, they constructed a systematic set of procedures so that rules—not people—dominated. The rules would become laws, and if one violated the laws, they violated the procedure, and thereby the democracy. While the people can change the laws (or procedures), they must follow procedure in order to change those laws legally. It is the system that rules.

Following Robert's Rules

So how does all of this figure into conducting board meetings? Put simply, it's a matter of people management. The founding fathers' approach makes little sense to an authoritarian personality, who is preoccupied with the dominance/submission, strong/weak, leader/follower dimensions of society. APs identify with power figures and derive security from knowing their place relative to those figures. So first and foremost, an AP needs to understand the chain of command in any group dynamic and where he or she fits into it.

One excellent tool for giving structure to meetings and other board business (which is helpful to everyone, regardless of personality type) is Robert's Rules of Order. Robert’s Rules were developed by U.S. Army Brigadier General Henry Martyn Robert in the 1870s when he was asked to preside over a church meeting. Though he felt unequal to the task, Robert nevertheless rose to the occasion—but determined to never again attend a meeting without having some understanding of parliamentary law.

As he was transferred around the country, Robert discovered that disorganization in meetings was epidemic, as people from different regions and walks of life had their own very different ideas as to what constituted the correct way to run a meeting. There were a few books available on the subject then, but Robert studied them, eventually streamlining everything he learned into Robert’s Rules of Order, the first edition of which was published in 1876.

Essentially, Robert’s Rules is an instructional manual delineating guidelines for orderly group decision-making. And, while co-op boards and HOAs are encouraged to be relaxed in the conduct of business, it is crucial that certain fundamentals be both understood and followed. If they are not, it is the responsibility of the board chair to remedy the problem. This means, of course, that if the chair has authoritative tendencies, your democracy may be in trouble.

One of Robert's most important rules has to do with “Decorum during Debate.” The rule stresses that in a debate, a member must confine their remarks to the question, be courteous in their language and deportment, avoid all personalities, not arraign the motives of another member, and emphasize that it is not the individual, but the measure that is subject of debate. It is the duty of the chair to enforce these behavioral guidelines. If he or she fails to do this, then a speaker who has the floor is open to interruptions and attacks by authoritarian personalities.

Indeed, the power that the chair wields with the gavel is to maintain democratic order. It is the chair’s responsibility to be impartial in order to facilitate the presentations of reports and the differing sides of debate in a depersonalized atmosphere that is free from intimidation by either a board member or the chair himself. The chair can do this because he presides over the debate process but doesn’t participate or vote, unless there is a tie.

New Approaches – But Not Necessarily Better Ones

In recent years, the road map provided by Robert’s Rules for more than a century has become somewhat muddied. There are now books available on the conduction of meetings that are inspired by or which reference Robert’s Rules, but these may not be the best fit for co-op and condo board business.

This is particularly the case when it comes to small organizations. For example, there are publications suggesting that since many HOAs have few members and small boards, it is acceptable for a chair to not only preside over meetings with all the power to recognize speakers, monitor behavior, and make rulings during debate, but also to be allowed to participate in debates and vote. While at first glance this may seem more modern or more efficient, such a policy sets up a slippery slope, especially where one or more AP board members are involved; rather than enhancing discussion and debate; it can give authoritarian board members enough leeway to run roughshod over their less aggressive counterparts, and can empower a chair to be a dictator via intimidation.

While Robert’s Rules mandates strict adherence to rules regarding debate and the role of the chair for boards of 12 or more, it does allow some occasional wiggle room for small boards of fewer than 12 members, should all members agree to the relaxation of strict parliamentary procedure. But with that however comes a fail-safe mechanism, should things get out of hand. Any time the relaxed process interferes with business in the judgment of any member (such as discomfort felt as a result of intimidation by the chair), a motion can be made to restore strict adherence to Robert’s Rules. The person making the motion has no need to justify or explain, and the chair, following the motion, can vote but not discuss. Members can debate the motion, but it would be meaningless because the idea is to restore the proper rules of debate.

Clearly, the nature of the personalities on a board, particularly that of the chair, are important to the nature of that board's process. Authority consists of both power and responsibility. Robert’s Rules of Order can be a useful parliamentary tool to keep things on track and not let the board’s directors go astray.

Roger Patching is a retired college professor, business professional and board member at a California condo association.

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