Managing the hornets in your hive
In my spare time, I am one of three co-chairs for the Toronto Beekeepers Co-op. We are a 40-person organization of volunteer urban beekeepers who build and care for 40 hives around the city. We are also committed to educating the public about the critical part bees play in keeping our planet healthy and productive.
Caring for our beehives is the easy part. Caring for the hive of people who manage the bees is much more troublesome. Those attracted to our Co-op come from all walks of life. Most are wonderfully eccentric, opinionated and caring. However, some haven’t figured out the co-operative part of a Co-op.
Many people are attracted to the idea of urban beekeeping but not to the actual work and learning involved in caring for the hives. We thought we had a good interview process to weed out those who couldn’t commit to the hours and to our guidelines of co-operation and respect. But we recently accepted someone who turned out to be a vicious bully (think of a hornet wasp). Our usually calm, positive hive turned toxic. She constantly challenged and interrupted fellow members at meetings, influenced others to do the same, sent an unending stream of complaining emails, and didn’t show up for her volunteer hive hours.
As a volunteer organization, we had no mechanisms to deal with troublesome members, unlike a business where HR policies can sort out malcontents. We three co-chairs felt helpless to expel the bully hornet and her followers. Then the situation became unbearable for the entire Co-op: arguments were increasing and hours consumed at meetings and on email resolving minor disputes. Many of the quieter members stopped attending the increasingly raucous and unproductive monthly meetings. The chairs had to act or our organization would fall apart. We agreed to:
Stop being afraid of the hornet and send a clear message to all members about our concerns.
Repeat our Rules of Engagement at the beginning of every meeting, which include respectful communication, a positive tone, and equal time for everyone to talk.
Require that members fulfill at least 25 of their 60 hive-caring hours by June every year. Any who don’t comply will be asked to leave the Co-op.
We now have policies in place to terminate members who cannot abide by our Rules of Engagement or Work Requirements. The troublesome members decided not to renew their memberships.
Leadership lesson: Address disruptive behaviour early in your organization, or it will escalate. Be willing to have uncomfortable conversations that bring issues forward.