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Minding your meeting manners: Peggy Post offers advice on board meeting etiquette.

MANY OF US DISMISS ETIQUETTE as just plain common courtesy. But according to a 2001 telephone survey administered by Public Agenda, courtesy is not as common as we would like to think. Eight in 10 Americans surveyed felt that a lack of respect and courtesy is a serious problem in our society. Forty-one percent even admitted to being a part of the problem by behaving badly themselves.

Peggy Post, the primary spokesperson and author for the Emily Post Institute, Burlington, Vermont, is not surprised by these responses. The institute receives thousands of letters annually from people hoping to avoid their own faux pas or trying to cope with someone else's inappropriate behavior. Increasingly, business etiquette has been of particular concern as organizations try to achieve that delicate balance between personal and professional interactions.

Post's book The Etiquette Advantage in Business: Personal Skills for Professional Success offers practical advice on a variety of topics, including planning and leading productive meetings. As a volunteer leader, much of the responsibility for maintaining decorum at board meetings rests on your shoulders. Peggy Post talked with ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT about the importance of addressing sticky situations with board members whose behavior is disruptive to the board's overall objectives.


ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Why is etiquette important?

Post: Etiquette is so important because it smoothes the way and makes our lives easier. I am convinced that most people want to get along with each other. The basic principles of etiquette--respect, consideration, and honesty--apply to everything we do both personally and professionally.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Why are organizations reluctant to address etiquette issues with their boards?

Post: It's awkward to address these issues. People don't like confrontations. They take the approach that if we don't address the problem, it will go away. That doesn't usually happen. You're better off addressing these issues early on before they get worse. Don't let them fester.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What's the best way to approach your board as a whole (or a specific board member) about a behavioral issue?

Post: It takes a lot of diplomacy. You have to begin from the stance that most people want to participate constructively and may not realize that their behavior is disruptive. If you're addressing the board as a whole, you want to think through issues that need to be discussed and have your facts straight. Provide specific examples of the troublesome behavior and make constructive suggestions for remedying it. Solicit ideas that might help improve the situation from board members. The bottom line is, you don't want to create tension among people. Nobody likes to be admonished. And let's acknowledge that meetings are much more structured than life.

When addressing problems with specific board members, speak to them in private during a break or after the meeting. The worst thing is to embarrass board members in front of the rest of group. Pull them aside and remind them of the rules that you've agreed upon to govern yourselves at meetings. Remember that etiquette is situational, so address the situation and not the person. For example, instead of saying, "Your whispering to others during board meetings is rude and disruptive," you might say, "It can be really difficult to stay focused during our meetings if there are side conversations going on." Whether these issues need to be addressed with the entire board or individually with specific members, recognize that you may not be able to solve the problem immediately.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What is the preferred code of conduct for volunteer leaders?

Post: It's a matter of being active and polite participants. Turn off your cell phones. Everyone at the meeting is probably expecting an important call. Be succinct and don't argue with other board members. Make eye contact when people are speaking. Don't doodle or whisper to the person sitting next to you. You can't just be there physically; you have to be mentally present.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: Some of the basic rules of etiquette seem like common sense. Why don't people follow them?

Post: People sometimes have difficulty expressing themselves. They forget to respect other people's time and opinions. They have to learn to disagree politely and move on with the business at hand. A common problem for nonprofit organizations is people making commitments and then not following through, which can lead to difficult situations at board meetings.

ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT: What's the chair's role in fostering courtesy and respect among board members?

Post: Ideally, the person running the meeting should set the tone for etiquette. The chair is like a school marm responsible for guiding the discussion, speaking up when conflicts arise, and redirecting members' attention back to the goals of the meeting. Don't stifle communication, but make sure it stays on the right track. You might have to remind people that their behavior has an effect on the entire board.

Don't think you're not being seen and heard. Everything that you do sends a message. Make it a positive one.

RELATED ARTICLE: Chairman's Checklist

You have an important role in not only maintaining order at board meetings but also setting the tone for a productive working environment. Review this brief checklist before your next meeting so that you'll help and not hinder the important process of accomplishing and setting the board's goals.

* Set a good example. Your behavior and demeanor serve as a model for the rest of the board.

* Be organized. Board members will be easily distracted and begin side conversations if they are waiting for you to get your act together.

* Recognize the need for breaks. Make sure that sufficient breaks are built into all meeting agendas to give board members an opportunity to recharge their batteries.

* Address any etiquette problems face-to-face. If you can help it, don't hide behind e-mail. Etiquette issues can be delicate and deserve an in-person conversation.

* Watch the clock. It's not respectful to waste people's time. Begin meetings on time; conclude them on time.

Careful attention to these details will make meetings more productive and may win you big points with your fellow board members.

Apryl Motley is senior editor of ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT. E-mail:
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Author:Motley, Apryl
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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