No matter what organization, from the treehouse to the board room, you’ve got to have your expectations spelled out. Some groups like to rely on ready made expectations like a blanket code of conduct. For example, Robert’s Rules of Order or the Boy Scouts code. Whether it’s a club charter or company mission statement and accompanying employee handbook, your gift to your constituents or members is telling them how to act and what to expect.
However, done right, this set of expectations can be a great barometer for the social health of your organization.
Trawl through old AskReddit threads and you’ll find a treasure trove of “how I beat the employee handbook” stories that reveal unhealthy corporate cultures with telltale landmarks like bad managers, silly policies and easily defeated micromanaging techniques. In a non-business setting, the organization health can be a little harder to pin down. Some clubs only meet once weekly or twice monthly. How are you to find your pain points with so little time to observe your members?
First, take a good hard look at your organization goals. Buried between a goal for territory expansion and another one for financial health or planning a big trip could be the one about retaining members or getting X number of new members to join. So…is that happening?
Secondly, pay attention during meetings, especially to when you stop paying attention. This is a great way to figure out if someone has gone rogue and started using your well-intentioned code of conduct as a blunt instrument to pick on the people they don’t like or just to destroy the will to live of every member who is not themselves.
Robert’s Rules of Order led to the longest twenty minutes of my life and years later, it torments me that I will never know which was better: lanyard, or pin?
It started innocently enough. I had joined the local branch of the California Writers’ Club before I could drive, so as a freshman in high school my mom was still accompanying me to meetings. We met in a room just off the gift shop of the local museum back then. The club hosted speakers every month and everyone had to wear name tags. It was my first foray into the world of adults not at work or teaching me in a classroom setting, and it was terribly, horrifyingly illuminating.
The club subscribed to a form of Robert’s Rules of Order in that a member would propose a motion, a board member would call for a second to the motion, and, if it got enough aye votes, the motion would pass. These motions included things like accepting reports, asking for reports, tabling issues, and proposing adjustments that would affect the whole club. Like whether our name tags should be attached to our persons via lanyard or pin.
You see, in order to second a motion, and then vote on the motion, first you had to understand the motion.
Enter elderly passionate lanyard woman. Or pin. Or lanyard. She started with, “I would like to propose a motion that we change from the pin to a lanyard to wear our name tags because the pin damages my blouse.”
But the lanyard might be itchy. We would have to obtain and test a variety of materials. Best to go with the pin.
But the pin could be hard to manipulate by those suffering from arthritis (90% of the club was elderly, and the next youngest member compared to me had three daughters, one of whom was my age).
But the lanyard might place the name tag at an uncomfortable height when the wearer sat.
We could try a clip perhaps – but not everyone wore shirts with collars, and the clip might damage some more delicate fabrics.
At this point my mom noticed the old man in front of us had fallen asleep and that the hairs on his wart waved and vibrated with his every snore and she began to giggle. The vice president slapped his palms on the table in front of the board members and shouted, “Right! I propose we table this motion!”
“Second! Second? Anybody second?” the then-secretary shouted desperately.
“But I haven’t finished my proposal,” the elderly marathon motioner said.
“Second!” some brave soul cried. It wasn’t me. The old man had more than one wart. They all had hair.
Some hands went up, confused, and then a few more who didn’t want to feel left out. Most were probably stretching at that point.
“The ayes have it!” the then-secretary declared.
“Perhaps you could research whether the lanyard or the clip is a superior alternative,” the vice president said, and placated, the elderly extreme proposer sat.
So how did Robert’s Rules of Order go so wrong? Rather, what happened to the health of the club?
Did anything in that exchange sound like the club was focused around the actual act of actually writing?
Rather, at the time, the club was geared toward taking in presentations given by writers or at least those attached to writing in some way. While some board members were incredibly connected and got some fantastic speakers to present (with ties to television, theater, and private investigation), the club as a whole was not a place for creation but for consumption. It attracted people who wanted to consume and with that came the people who wanted to talk. Robert’s Rules of Order, originally adopted because it would ensure every member could be heard, became a method for a poorly disguised pontification on the minutiae so painstaking that not even the people who created the club originally could have brought themselves to care.
To power up the health of the club, a couple things needed to happen. First, was the club serving its purpose? On paper, that was to encourage writing. No writing was actually happening. By adding hands on workshops and promoting the semi-annual open mic sessions, people had an avenue to be heard without subjecting the rest of us to a creative interpretation of Robert’s Rules. Secondly, does the club have the right makeup of members?
This question is a little dangerous. You never want to make people feel unwanted when they are truly well meaning. Your goal then is to attract enough of your healthy members to help keep the current members in check. In this case, no one really wanted to participate. The interesting thing about Robert’s Rules is that anyone could have proposed tabling the motion. No one cared enough to end our communal suffering to raise their hand and say, “Let’s table this motion,” or perhaps, “It sounds like this fascinating topic needs more research, we would love to see the results of your study at the next meeting”. The right makeup of the club then is to either figure out how to make the current members participate out of sheer self defense or attract members who will participate, or some combination of both.
The answer to question one went a long way to answering question two. It also helped that the vice president got very hair trigger on tabling motions for a little while, which was his own abuse of Robert’s Rules.
Never ignore the first symptom whether it be a drop in membership or a sense of stagnation. And never – or very rarely – give in to the desire to use the expectations as a weapon.