Published in the ECHO Journal, December 2011

Robert’s Rules of Order to the Rescue!

Do you have a few board members, maybe even a board chair, who are sometimes a bit too closed minded, even rude, and must have their way? Well, it is likely that you do. It is not uncommon. And, while you are not going to have a lot of success changing their thinking, you can change their behavior, especially if you understand better what motivates it.

During the Second World War, the United States and its democratic allies invested a fortune in research to understand why so many people in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere, were so willing to believe the unbelievable, do the undoable, and follow leaders who seemed crazy. It was important to victory to understand the ideology and behavior of the enemy. When the Cold War followed, the studies continued for the same reasons. It led to the development of a new field: Political Psychology.

We now know that psychologically there are people who are predisposed to see reality quite differently. There are, essentially, what we label as anti-democratic “authoritarian personalities” (APs) and “democratic personalities” (DPs). They are formed primarily by the nature of their upbringing in terms of family, education, and peers. Importantly, it is now well understood that the most dangerous threat to the survival of democracy is the AP, whether foreign or home grown. The AP and DP simply see things quite differently because they process information through entirely different minds. The AP will unwittingly destroy democratic institutions believing that he is improving democracy. If you have them on your board, you have a problem that should not be trivialized. “Personality Studies” are academically central to intelligence agencies in all democracies.

Fascinatingly, part of the genius of the founding fathers who drafted our Constitution and constructed our democracy was that they understood this well before the detailed research prompted by World War II. They had suffered under the rule of an aristocracy, headed by a monarch, and leadership was based upon blood. Clearly a flawed premise for rule, America’s new leaders understood that they needed to create a system whereby no one person or small group would be able to dominate. They needed a process that would block this and instead allow for the will of the many to prevail, and yet not at the expense of the few. They feared the tyranny of the majority as well as that of an elite. They understood, therefore, that their task was to construct a systematic set of procedures so that rules dominated and not people. The rules would become laws and if one violated the laws, they violated the procedure, thereby the democracy. Democracy is the only ideology that is exclusively a set of procedures. It is not who won an election that determines whether or not it was democratic, it is how it was conducted. An arrest is legal only if proper procedures are followed. And, while people can change the law (procedures), they must follow procedures to change it legally. It is the system that rules, not people.

This makes no sense to an authoritarian personality. It is, to him, nonsensical gibberish. The AP is the ostensible adult who never psychologically matured and still accepts and desires the dependency and security characteristics of childhood, including the comforts of irresponsibility that accompany having someone else make decisions and be responsible for the consequences. While often loud and boorish, he is, at his core, not a leader but an insecure follower. Do not make him complicated. Psychologically, he is simple minded, lonely, and childlike in his quest for security.

Measured on sliding scales depending upon the individual, the dominant attitudinal characteristics of the AP (that you have already witnessed with such board members) are as follows:

A preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimensions of society: He needs to understand the chain of command and where he is in any group. There are only leaders and followers. (“Der Fuhrer” and “Il Duce” mean, in German and Italian, “the leader.”) One’s primary task, then, is to follow, not question. APs identify with power figures. His security comes from the group. He has no scaffolding inside holding him together.

Distrust of Reason and Dichotomous (black/white) Thinking: The AP doesn’t trust reason because he doesn’t reason very well. He is suspicious of analytical efforts to evaluate anything and is exceptionally anti-intellectual and intolerant. He is not a deep reader or thinker. Information that conflicts with his perception of reality (which is actually the perception of reality of his leader since he doesn’t reach conclusion on his own) is rejected as invalid. If it doesn’t make sense to him, it doesn’t make sense. He is a study in cognitive dissonance.

(Because of authoritarian anti-intellectualism in the US, campaign managers avoid the topic of the educational background of their candidate, particularly if it includes advanced degrees. Better to have Jimmy Carter be a peanut farmer than a nuclear engineer. The well educated are viewed as over-educated egg heads out of touch with reality. Education is easy to hide in American politics because many people are so anti-intellectual that it doesn’t occur to them to inquire about what Clinton, Bush, or Obama studied in college, if at all. Whereas educational qualifications would be significant to Exxon board members when choosing the CEO, how much has been discussed by anyone regarding the educational backgrounds of the candidates currently vying for the Republican Presidential nomination?)

Psychologically, the authoritarian personality is too insecure to handle information that may “gray” (confuse) what is otherwise a black-white, leader-follower, we-them world. He is more emotional than rational, and that doesn’t mean qualities of the heart such as empathy or compassion. It means that he is consumed more by gut reactions and tantrums than thoughtful reflection. He is an unhappy bully and emotionally indignant when challenged. (Focusing on strong versus weak, he would always favor military force over diplomacy in foreign affairs because he responds to force [the absence of reason] more than reason and he believes most people are like him.) Compromise is unimaginable and he prefers threats. Since the world is to him “us versus them,” he has little affection for those different from his group and would be more secure if “they” didn’t exist.

Authority consists of both power and responsibility. The authoritarian personality can only focus on power and therefore will automatically irresponsibly abuse power if he has it. Democratic processes were created to constrain his ability to do so.

Democratic personalities simply possess attitudinal characteristics opposite to those of the AP. The most important psychological difference is that the DP has an absence of a need to either dominate or submit. It isn’t that the DP can’t follow or issue orders if the position requires it; rather he doesn’t have a need to do either. He has a belief in the worth and dignity of one’s self and all others. He is happy and, because he believes that people have inherent worth, he is inclined psychologically to cooperate and compromise. His focus is on the responsibility that accompanies authority, not the power.

Do not, however, view the DP as a marshmallow that can be walked on. He is psychologically enormously more mature and secure than the AP. So, while he is able to compromise, he cannot abide by behavior that either stifles intellectual discourse or hurts people. Were he to do so, he would lose his self respect. It is often forgotten, for example, that we and our allies were assisted in the defeat of Germany by Germans during the war. They helped, quite simply, because of their personalities. They couldn’t go along with the brutal policies of the Nazi regime and maintain self respect. Most were caught and executed as traitors. For democratic personalities, loyalty and patriotism is civically tied to principles, not dictatorial leaders or practices. For the AP, failure to blindly obey and follow is treason.

Inherent to Robert’s Rules of Order is the understanding that democratic rule is a process, a body of procedures. If one violates the process, he is violating the democracy. There is no distinction between means and ends since the end of a democracy is the means – a way of doing things. Robert’s Rules delineates behavioral guidelines for decision making. And, while HOAs are encouraged to be relaxed in the conduct of business consistent with Robert’s Rules, it is crucial that the underlying fundamentals be both understood and followed. And, if they are not, it is the responsibility of the Chair to remedy the problem. This means, of course, that if the Chair has AP tendencies, your democracy is in trouble.

One of the most important rules has to do with “Decorum during Debate.” The rule stresses that in debate a member must confine himself to the question, be courteous in his language and deportment, avoid all personalities, not arraign the motives of a member, and emphasize that it is not the man, but the measure, that is subject of debate. It is the duty of the Chair to enforce these behavioral guidelines. If he doesn’t then a speaker who has the floor is open to interruptions and attacks by authoritarian personalities. Indeed, the disproportionate power that the Chair wields with the gavel is to maintain democratic order. It is the Chair’s responsibility to be impartial in order to facilitate the presentations of reports and the differing sides of debate in a depersonalized atmosphere that is free from intimidation by either a board member or the Chair. The Chair can do this because he presides over the debate process but doesn’t participate nor vote, unless there is a tie.

The same rules regarding behavior necessary for “Decorum during Debates” are essential for group email communications. Robert’s Rules were drafted before the arrival of email but it is clear that group email communications are now common and can invite debate. Consequently, the same guidelines for civility, particularly the absence of attacks on personalities, apply to official group email communications. And, again, it is the obligation of the Chair to discipline, consistent with procedures delineated in Robert’s Rules, offenders as well as educate them accordingly. If the Chair fails to do so then a board member should make a motion recommending that the Chair resign due to a failure to impartially administer the rules.

It is very important to note, however, that the set of guidelines provided by Robert’s Rules for more than a century has become muddied of late. There are now books available regarding the conduct of meetings other than Robert’s Rules that “reference” Robert’s Rules but should not be embraced by HOA boards. This has particularly become a problem in terms of small organizations. For example, there are publications that suggest that since many HOAs have few members and typically small boards, it is reasonable for a Chair to not only preside with all the power to recognize speakers, monitor behavior, and make rulings during debate, but also be allowed to both participate (debate) and vote. While this may seem modern or more efficient at first glance, it is simply quite wrong and reflects a profound misunderstanding of the concepts underlying democratic practices and procedures. Such a policy would not enhance discussion and debate; it would simply empower the Chair to be a dictator via intimidation.

Please note that Robert’s Rules also allows for different practices in terms of small boards of less than 12, but with a major difference. Because protecting the democratic environment is so central, Robert’s Rules mandates strict adherence to rules regarding debate and the role of the Chair with boards of 12 or more and allows, as an occasional option, the slight “relaxation” of the rules with small boards on a case by case basis as determined by the board. It is just an option. Any time when the relaxed process interferes with business in the judgment of any member (such as discomfort felt as a result of intimidation by the Chair), a motion can be made to restore strict adherence to the rules. The person making the motion has no need to justify or explain and the Chair, following the motion, can vote but not discuss. And, members can debate the motion but that is meaningless because the idea is to restore the rules of debate.

Clearly, this makes the nature of the personalities on the board, particularly that of the Chair, even more important to the nature of the process. It would not be surprising, for example, that a Chair with an authoritarian personality, along with his allies, would move the body of 11 or less to reject the standard version of Robert’s Rules (required for 12 or more) and choose the relaxed option as often as possible in order to increase the power of the Chair. They would see it as strengthening democracy and leadership whereas the DP would recognize it for what it is: a power grab to dominate, dictate, control, and intimidate. Moreover, since the strict rules actually allow the Chair to participate in debate after passing the gavel to someone else, it is recommended that the relaxed option never be used.

So, again, if you want to eliminate rude and unruly behavior, while trying to help APs become more psychologically secure and therefore less controlling, stick with Robert’s Rules of Order. The US is both the oldest Constitutional Democracy and government on earth. (The UK didn’t even begin to approach real democracy until their Reform Act of 1832.) Robert’s Rules is intimately tied to the basic principles that have served democratic decision making quite well for a very long time and should not be repealed if currently in your By-Laws. And, if it is not currently the guide cited in your By-Laws, it is time that it becomes the guide.


Roger Patching is Emeritus Professor and Department Chair of History and Political Science at Cosumnes River College in California. He is the president/CEO of the 501 C4 nonprofit, tax-exempt, corporation, “Friends of Lake Tahoe,” and sits on the board of a very large condo complex located at Lake Tahoe. He can be reached at PatchiR@emeriti.crc.losrios.edu or via www.friendsoflaketahoe.org