It can be daunting enough to stand in front of a room full of parents and teachers and lead a meeting. The last thing a new or even seasoned PTO leader needs is a naysayer in the group. Unfortunately, the law of averages practically dictates that there will be at least one person there who’s ready to shoot down every idea or proposal.

Even if the meeting goes off without a hitch, grumbling individuals can undermine a team’s morale in any setting, whether serving on a committee or simply gossiping around school. What’s a savvy PTO leader to do?

“Whenever you have passionate people who feel strongly about anything, particularly the education of their children, you’re going to have differences of opinion,” says Jim Kouzes, coauthor of The Leadership Challenge and a noted expert on the subject of leadership. He’s quick to point out that diversity within a group should be welcomed because differences of opinion often enrich the conversation and make it possible for people to come up with even better ideas. The trick lies in managing it diplomatically.

An Open Forum

The first rule of thumb is to establish an environment where everyone feels they can be heard. Sounds easy enough, right? But if you’re at all in doubt about your ability to convey that impression, it might help to have someone else give you feedback on your style of leadership. “A leader has to be perceived as credible in the eyes of the constituency,” Kouzes says. In other words, people have to believe the messenger before they believe the message. He recommends brushing up on your leadership skills through independent reading or being coached by someone knowledgeable. (Former PTO leaders are often good sources for tips.)

Armed with some understanding of self and a willingness to admit you don’t have all the answers, you can begin to create the necessary climate and foster what Kouzes likes to call “constructive controversy.” In effect, you’re promoting disagreement, but it’s geared toward achieving some greater good or shared outcome. Leadership is not just about the leader, it’s also about the constituents. Everyone should feel they have the opportunity to express divergent points of view with an understanding that at some point a consensus must be reached.

It’s important to note that tense or controversial conversations over email will almost never be constructive. If you see an argument bubbling up in that forum, take it offline and in person as soon as possible.

A Shared Purpose

Having a common goal keeps a group cohesive. It’s the next item you should establish once lines of communication are open. Drawing up a mission statement early on helped parent volunteer Rosita Gonzalez skirt negativity during her term as PTO president at Thoreau Elementary in Madison, Wis. “When funding issues or any issues at all came up, they were all looked at in the perspective of the mission statement,” she says. Kouzes is on the same page: “Keeping that shared purpose foremost in everyone’s mind gives everyone a touchstone to return to.”

Rules of Play

Since people in volunteer situations frequently have a limited amount of time, there’s a tendency to want to jump right into solving a problem. But if you’re serious about heading off negativity at the pass, it’s important to lay some ground rules first. You might even take the time to actually review them at the start of each meeting. “Reiterate things like ‘We’re not going to cut other people off, we’re going to actively listen, we’re going to ask questions before giving our own opinions,’ those kinds of guidelines,” Kouzes says. After a while, these behaviors can become habitual, but when you’re first starting out, a quick review could spell the difference between a productive meeting and one that spirals out of control.

A Personal Touch

Marcy Levy Shankman is principal of MLS Consulting, a company devoted to leadership development. She’s also coauthor of the book Emotionally Intelligent Leadership and, fittingly, has served as a PTO leader herself. Eventually she assumed a copresidency but in her early years of PTO involvement, she served as chair of the book fair; as such, her attendance at general meetings was sporadic. “What amazed me was that for many years, I would show up at these meetings and there was never a plan for introductions. Because there was almost an assumption that if you were there, everyone knew who you were and vice versa. But it simply wasn’t the case,” she says. “So when I started my presidency with my colleague, we started out with the expectation among our execu-tive committee that every time we got together in a meeting, we would start with some kind of a personal acknowledgement of every individual in the room.”

Inviting people to share just a little bit about themselves often helps dispel any preconceived notions others in the group may have. For example, it might turn out that the clique many thought so unapproachable has a human face after all. Shankman found that injecting warmth into the proceedings set such a different tone, she encouraged other committees to do the same with their teams. “We were trying to create a tone of engagement that was inclusive, that was reflective of the ‘we know it takes a community, we know it takes a village’ mentality,” she says.

The Real Heckler

Despite extensive groundwork, sometimes an individual emerges who seems determined to throw a wet blanket on all proceedings. As leader, it’s your role to intervene, particularly if heated conversations arise during meetings. But if you’re able and the situation warrants, it helps to step back and analyze just where the negativity is coming from. Is it about the idea or the person? Is it because the person voicing the complaint is a pessimist, or is it coming from a well-founded source of concern? These are all questions Shankman recommends asking yourself when considering the situation.

“Part of the way you deal with negativity is to hear it out, try to figure out what it’s based upon and where it’s coming from, and then begin to work towards a ‘Well, what can we do with it now?’ solution,” Shankman says. Resistance might be present for a good reason, and many times the perceived wet blanket is actually a critical thinker. A negative response doesn’t always mean a person is against an idea. Sometimes it’s a desire for further understanding that is just being poorly communicated.

One thing is certain: It’s never productive to meet negativity, particularly if it comes sheathed in hostility, with a similar response. If a quick rundown of the group’s ground rules doesn’t work, it’s better to take a break when things are getting tense. “Have a private conversation with that person rather than a public one,” Kouzes advises. “If the behavior persists and it’s not conducive to the group’s goals, have a quiet conversation with other members. See if their sense is the same as yours in order to come to some kind of understanding. And if it’s possible to ask that person to leave, it may be just what you’ll have to ask him or her to do.” Although it can be tough to remove volunteers, sometimes it has to be done for the greater good.

Be Open to New People and Ideas

Fortunately, most situations can be turned around before it ever comes to that. Mother of four and PTO board veteran Kelly McDonnell has endured plenty of negativity in groups. And because of school transfers dictated by her husband’s job, she’s even experienced it across several states. Currently she’s the PTO treasurer at SunRidge Middle School in Winter Garden, Fla. “My response to the naysayers has always been ‘We’ve got plenty of open spaces. We always need help. Come take a look, and maybe you can help change it, then. Nothing that’s done has to be done that way,’” McDonnell says.

If something’s been working, the tendency is to continue, but McDonnell welcomes input anyway. “Generally what happens is either A, that person sees it’s not as easy as they think it is to change things or do things differently, or B, maybe they really do have some valid ideas,” she says.

Gonzalez readily admits she was one of the vocal ones when, as a parent new to the school, she first started attending PTO meetings. “I didn’t want my comments to come across as negative, but because it was something counter to what they’d been doing, I think they were perceived as negative even though they weren’t meant to be,” she says now. It quickly became obvious to her she needed to get more involved. “You can’t speak up in a meeting like that and not get involved in the PTO.” The next year she became president.

Catch More Flies With Honey

Attracting and keeping volunteers is a tenuous business at best, as any PTO leader will tell you. Eliminating the negative can go a long way toward keeping a group strong. “People need to feel the positive outweighs the negative by a factor of at least 5 to 1 in order to feel fully engaged and comfortable in a group,” Kouzes says. Individuals need to feel heard, appreciated, included, and like they’re making a contribution—not rejected, criticized, put down, and unheard. “A positive tone makes people feel more engaged,” he adds, “and engaged people are more productive.”


8 Tips for Handling Negativity

  1. Brush up on effective leadership strategies (former PTO leaders may be a resource).
  2. Be an active listener.
  3. Establish a common goal or mission statement.
  4. Lay ground rules for appropriate conduct in meetings.
  5. Set a friendly, welcoming tone at the proceedings.
  6. Never respond to negativity with similar emotions.
  7. Be prepared to be a peacemaker and make tough decisions.
  8. Encourage naysayers to get involved.