Governing Bodies and The Outlier Syndrome
By Tami A. Tanoue, Executive Director, CIRSA
Those who have been working with municipalities for an extended period have observed a phenomenon that occurs at the governing body level. Let’s call this phenomenon the Outlier Syndrome.
The Outlier is the “lone wolf” who sits on a school board, city council, or board of trustees and steadfastly refuses to act like a member of the team. Even while isolating himself or herself as the only person on the losing side of just about every vote, the Outlier manages to create havoc with the rest of the body. The Outlier may be obstreperous and obstructionist. The Outlier may refuse to recognize and respect the norms that guide the rest of the body’s conduct. The Outlier may position himself or herself as the only “ethical” or “transparent” member of the body. The Outlier’s every statement and action seems to be aimed at preserving that self-assumed distinction rather than making any concrete achievements. Sometimes, a governing body is unfortunate enough to have more than one Outlier.
Have you ever experienced the Outlier Syndrome in action? We call it a syndrome because of the recognizable features or symptoms that seem to fester whenever an Outlier sits on a governing body. Do you have an Outlier on your governing body? Could you possibly be an Outlier? Should the Outlier Syndrome be viewed as an affliction or malady? And if so, what can be done? We’ll explore these questions in more detail below.
Power, Goals, and the Outlier
To understand the Outlier’s impact on a governing body, let’s start with the idea that elected officials can only act as part of a body – a collaborative decision-making body. You can search throughout the laws governing boards, statutory municipalities, or just about any home rule charter, and you’ll likely find no powers or duties that are to be exercised by a singular elected official (other than the mayor, who may have certain defined responsibilities). This means that, as elected officials, the only way you can get anything accomplished is to have a majority of the governing body on your side.
It’s likely that each elected official has an individual list of goals, goals that those who voted for you want you to accomplish. But your goals can be accomplished only if they’re part of the goals of the body as a whole. That means your success depends on creating a consensus of the majority! And where does the Outlier fit in on a collaborative decision-making body? Why, nowhere! Perpetually being on the losing side of a vote means that the Outlier gets nowhere on his or her goals…unless, of course, he or she feels that being an Outlier is its own reward.
Are you an Outlier?
Perhaps you’ve met your share of Outliers, who tend to share one or more of these characteristics:
- There is an element of the lone crusader in them. They feel they were elected to shake up the status quo in some way. Maybe they think their predecessors were too cozy with developers, not friendly enough with the business community, too close to the municipality’s staff, not close enough to the municipality’s staff, etc.
- They view themselves as independent thinkers. They are often highly intelligent, but not “people persons.” In kindergarten, their report cards might have reflected a poor score on “plays well with others.”
- They take a perverse glee in being the “outsider,” relish arguments for argument’s sake, and place little value on matters like courtesy and regard for the feelings of others.
- They hate having to endure “soft” discussions such as a council or board retreat, the establishment of a mission or vision statement, the development of consensus around rules of procedure or rules of conduct, a session to discuss goals and priorities, or a CIRSA liability training session.
- They feel they are always right, and everyone else is always wrong. They feel they are always ethical, and everyone else is not. They feel they are looking out for the citizens, and everyone else is not.
- Initially, they may just have been unfamiliar with the ways of local government, and needed to build the skills to work effectively in a new environment. One or more gaffes may have caused them to be pegged as Outliers and treated accordingly, initiating an unhealthy Outlier dynamic.
- There may have been some explosive moments in private or public with the Outlier’s colleagues, or indeed, the colleagues may have made some attempt at an “intervention.”
These observations may or may not be totally on the mark. But one characteristic of the Outlier cannot be denied: he or she is seldom on the prevailing side of a vote, and is often at loggerheads with the rest of the body.
Do you think you may be an Outlier? If so, you might examine what your goals as an elected official really are. Do you want to have a list of concrete accomplishments at the end of your term? Or will it be accomplishment enough to have been the “loyal opposition”? If the former, then your behavior may be working at cross-purposes with your goals. If the latter, really? Will the people who voted for you be satisfied with that accomplishment? Will you?
Is the Outlier a Problem for the Rest of the Body?
Most people who’ve had to deal with an Outlier would say that yes, the Outlier is a problem! How? Well, here are some ways:
- Anger and frustration build when a council or board has to deal with an Outlier, siphoning away energy that could be spent on more positive endeavors. This is a particular problem if tensions have built to the point that confrontations have begun to occur. No reasonable person wants to attend or view a council meeting and have a hockey game break out! It may be entertaining, but mostly, it’s embarrassing to the governing body and to the community.
- Healthy teams seek to build a sense of camaraderie and cohesiveness. That’s not entirely possible when there’s an Outlier. It’s not healthy to build a team around a shared hatred of one of its own members, and most reasonable people would prefer not to have that happen.
- The Outlier’s perspective tends to be oppositional. From a liability standpoint, such a perspective is risky. If you’re taking positions on an oppositional basis, are you really meeting your fiduciary duty to look out for the best interests of the entity?
- A disharmonious governing body is a dysfunctional governing body. It’s been CIRSA’s experience that liability claims thrive in an environment of disharmony and dysfunction.
- Your staff members are affected by the Outlier Syndrome, too. From the staff’s perspective, seeing dysfunction on the governing body is a little like watching discord between one’s own parents. It’s unsettling, distressing, and morale-crushing.
- Most importantly, it’s a shame for the governing body to lose a potentially valuable contributing member. In a worst case scenario, the Outlier becomes completely disempowered as he or she is ignored and marginalized. But this means that the body isn’t running on all cylinders, and is deprived of the valuable perspectives that the Outlier might otherwise bring. Ultimately, the voters, and the community, are the losers.
Dealing with the Outlier Syndrome
You can’t cure an affliction until you recognize it. And you can’t recognize what you haven’t named and defined. If your school board or municipality is afflicted with Outlier Syndrome, you’ve taken the first steps towards a cure by naming, defining, and recognizing it! Here are some other steps you might consider.
- Confront the issue forthrightly and compassionately in a neutral environment. A board or council meeting is likely not a neutral environment! Perhaps the matter could be discussed as one item on a retreat agenda. Be prepared with specific examples of how the Outlier has negatively impacted the body.
- Consider addressing the issue in the context of a larger discussion about governing body rules of procedure or rules of conduct. The “norms” that guide members’ interactions with one another may be obvious to some but not all, especially to newer members. Those norms could be part of the discussion, and the process of articulating them can facilitate a consensus to honor them.
- Consider bringing in an outside facilitator to assist you. A governing body is a bit like a marriage that’s been arranged for you by the citizens! There’s nothing wrong with getting some outside help for perspective and to find solutions.
If you think you might have the Outlier label pinned on you, consider these suggestions:
- First, get a reality check. Find out how you’re being perceived by your peers. It may be very different from your own perception of yourself. Ask each of your colleagues to give you a frank assessment.
- Check your motivations. If you have concrete goals you want to accomplish as an elected official, you must accept that success in your position can’t happen without collaboration and consensus building. There is nothing that you can accomplish alone. So set a goal to be on the “prevailing” side…indeed to bring others over to establish a “prevailing” side.
- If you’ve already burned some bridges, understand that consensus-building can’t happen without mutual trust, respect, and a sense of cohesion. These will take time to build. Look for a retreat or other opportunities to clear the air and start fresh.
- Use staff as a resource! Your manager or administrator wants nothing more than to assist newly elected officials in learning the ropes, and understanding the best time, place, and approach to raising issues. Don’t get off on the wrong foot with blunders that might peg you as an Outlier.
What if all efforts to deal with the Outlier Syndrome fail? Well, it might be time for the rest of the governing body to cut its losses and move on. Don’t continue to agonize over the Outlier and his or her impact on the body’s functioning. Continue to accord the Outlier the same opportunities to participate in discussion and decision-making as any other member, but don’t allow the Outlier to keep pushing your buttons. Remember, arguments and confrontations require more than one participant. You may need to simply say “thank you” or move on to the next point of discussion. Ultimately, the responsibility for putting an Outlier into office rests with the citizens, so there’s only so much you can do. Try to go about your business without having the Outlier become the dysfunctional center around which the rest of you swirl.
Governing body members don’t all have to be in lockstep, or think and behave in the same way. On the contrary, diversity of thinking, styles, opinions, experiences, and approaches are healthy and necessary for a collaborative decision-making body. There is truly a collective wisdom that comes forth when many diverse minds work together on common goals. But the Outlier Syndrome is detrimental to a high-functioning governing body, and therefore, to the community. If your governing body is afflicted with the Outlier Syndrome, it’s time to do something about it!
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