The Chair’s role in building a positive working culture

illustration of faces in cog wheels, all linked together - indicating team culture

How would you describe the working culture at your organisation? Does it enable people to contribute and thrive? Is it the same across the organisation from top to bottom and across different teams? Do the board and senior management team value the same behaviours and promote a consistent, constructive culture? Do you have policies and systems that allow you to deal with problems if they occur?

A negative culture can have a huge impact on the productivity and stability of the organisation. And on everyone’s wellbeing. Conversely, a productive culture that values curiosity and constructive challenge at every level means that people will feel safe and secure enough to speak their minds, challenge norms, be innovative and, if necessary, challenge behaviours.

Knowing your culture

The culture of an organisation is hard to define and even harder to change. It’s easier to feel than see. It is the sum of many different behaviours and attitudes. It’s “the way we do things around here”. But it’s also “the way we think around here.” This can be positive, or badly oppressive. The example set at the top is critical, especially by the board and by senior staff (if you have them). If your charity has a lot of staff or volunteers it can be particularly hard to be in touch with how it feels to be involved in your organisation.

Do you understand the culture of the organisation and the way it helps (or hinders) the achievement of the mission?

It can be useful to ask yourself some questions, both about the board and the wider organisation. For example:

  • How would you describe the board’s culture? Would your board and any staff colleagues agree with that description?
  • Does the charity have an agreed statement of values? When were these last discussed? How do you and the CEO (if you have one) promote them, to who? What happens if people do not act in accordance with these?
  • What is the culture of the senior management team- how does it differ to the board?
  • How will the board know if there are problems in the organisation’s culture?
  • What formal and informal means do you use to assess the health of your culture? For example a staff or volunteer survey, monitoring staff and volunteer retention, exit interviews for staff and volunteers, monitoring complaints. Bear in mind that a lack of complaints can be a warning sign that people feel afraid to speak up or do not have confidence in the complaints system.
  • How do you deal with problems? If something goes wrong, can team members communicate ‘bad’ news without fear of blame?
  • Do you have policies and procedures to deal with inappropriate behaviour?

Warning signs include:

  • Calling out mistakes more often than you praise successes.
  • Having a culture where rules are flouted.
  • People feel unable to question or disagree with those in authority.
  • People feel it is not acceptable to admit gaps in knowledge, skills or resources.
  • People feel uncomfortable constructively challenging each another.
  • People feel under constant pressure to deliver.
  • People are in constant competition with each other.
  • There is discomfort with constructive conflict.
  • Persistent poor morale or poor productivity.
  • Reports of harassment, bullying or other poor behaviour.

As Chair it is important to be in tune with what is going on and for the board and management to take steps to sort out problems if needed. Would you be able to spot the signs that a culture is going wrong?

It’s difficult to measure culture, but a good Chair should have the awareness and instincts to sense when things are going well or are problematic. This requires spending time in the organisation at every level, and using every conversation to take the temperature. Listen to people; show you value them.

Leading from the top

Your behaviour and leadership as Chair is key to setting the tone. As well as ensuring you have the right policies and procedures, and monitoring key information such as turnover or complaints, how you act yourself and how you respond to poor behaviour in others is noticed and repeated.

It starts with board behaviours and is reflected in how the relationship between the board and the senior executives is seen, and especially the relationship between Chair and CEO if you have one. Make sure that you are aware of your own behaviour and how it makes others feel. See What makes a good charity Chair?

But you cannot always protect yourself from behaviours that threaten a positive culture, on the board or elsewhere. When it arises, make sure that you or your colleagues act on difficult situations, don’t leave them to fester. See our new guide to working with trustees one-to-one. We are bringing out new guides on building a team and on dealing with difficult board relationships later this year.

Make some space for conversations about the working culture of your board and / or organisation. Often people have assumptions about how things are done and these are not spoken about. Doing some work as a team on this can raise issues and build a consensus. Some organisations share these as insights into their culture. For example, look at the Government Digital Service’s team values list (this GDS post looks at culture in more detail) and Small Charities Coalition’s list of things they do to manage stress.

In a smaller organisation you may have more opportunity to get to know staff and volunteers. For example, read this blog post from Mars Lord where she talks about building her skills as a new Chair.

There is further reading about organisational culture on KnowHow NonProfit.

Processes and procedures

Your organisation should have clear ways for staff, volunteers and trustees to report problems.

Have policies which deal with bullying, safeguarding and whistleblowing. Ensure they are kept up-to-date. Make sure everyone knows about them and follows them if needed. Make sure people know who they can contact if they have a problem. Do you have a named person who is an experienced point of contact?

Having active policies and procedures can help to generate a positive culture where it is safe to speak up as people know that their complaint will be taken seriously and action taken.

AoC members and Beacon participants can access our policies and procedures tool specifically for Chairs. NCVO also have template policies and procedures.

Useful AoC resources

Further reading

ACEVO and the Centre for Mental Health's In Plain Sight report released today (10 June 2019), looks at bullying in the sector and makes six recommendations about creating safer systems, processes and culture.


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