Toronto Condo News is republishing this article by Tina Larsson in which she spoke with Upper West Side (New York City) condominium board member Mary Federico. Mary runs Organizational Behavior Strategies (http://www.obstrategies.com/), a consultancy that helps leaders use behavioral science to improve personal and organizational effectiveness. Her professional approach to communications and understanding of organizational behaviour has benefitted her community.
By the time I joined the board 5 years ago, I’d already lived in my building for 25 years. The building seemed to be very well-run. But there wasn’t a lot of transparency about the board’s workings or decisions. Communication was sporadic and very formal. The focus was on telling. There was no clear way to ask questions, express concerns, or have a dialog.
The mood at our Annual Owner Meetings was usually tense. Board members never appeared comfortable. They did not introduce themselves, so I never knew who was who. Without fail, an owner would stand up and deliver an angry and lengthy rant about their pet peeve. We could infer that the board was doing a lot of work. But there wasn’t a feeling that we’re all in this together.
Professionals in my field – behavioral science – know how critical it is for people in an organization to trust and like their leaders. Communication is critical to creating that kind of environment. In a communication vacuum, people draw their own conclusions about leader intentions and actions – and those conclusions are often wrong. This is as true in condominiums and co-ops as it is in corporations or governmental entities.
So in short, I saw a lack of the kind of communication that could create a stronger and more trusting relationship between the board and residents. Such a relationship would be especially helpful in getting residents to support changes and to give the board the benefit of the doubt when things go wrong – as is likely to happen at some point.
What actions did you take?
Five years ago, I accepted an offer to replace a departing board member. I knew I wanted to work on communication with residents.
I quickly learned that we had an extremely knowledgeable and experienced board. Members had expertise in architecture, residential building management, condominium law, interior design, finance, and telecommunications. Board members were busy with a long list of important projects.
But as is the case in many organizations, communication was an afterthought…a necessary evil…an extra task that would take time away from the “real work.” There was no talk of how it might positively affect resident behavior or contribute to the smooth running of the building. No one owned it or considered it to be their area of expertise. So I was able to step in.
I started slowly, collaborating with a small team of board members to put together information on key projects. I worked to gain support for what eventually became a completely new approach. Among other things, that included more frequent and timely communications on a wider variety of topics. It involved a friendlier and more informal tone, and easy-to-read writing. And it provided residents with clarity on how to voice concerns, make suggestions, and get answers to questions.
What was your solution?
The solution was to treat communication as an integral part of running the building, and to approach it strategically.
Someone (me) has overall responsibility for communications. Of course everything is a product of close collaboration, and we have a process for that. But the roles have to be clear. Because if everyone is in charge, no one is.
We have an overarching goal, which is to build and maintain a trusting relationship with residents. Every communication – written or in person – is an opportunity to do that. Or not.
We recognize the dangers of an information vacuum, so we communicate even when we don’t have all the details or answers. This reduces uncertainty and anxiety. And it lets residents know that we’re committed to keeping them in the loop. We end every email with info on whom to contact with questions or concerns. And we get back to them with answers.
The tone of our communication is professional but warm and empathic. That’s a product of both the writing style and our willingness to acknowledge how residents feel. We strive for a sense that all of us, as a community, are working together to create a safe and pleasant living environment.
We follow the Federal Government’s “Plain Language” writing guidelines. That makes it more likely that residents will read and understand what we send them.
We structure communications to focus first on what we want the residents to do. Then we provide what they need to know in order to do it. We use email subject lines and the intro paragraph of every email to make sure that we’ve delivered the main message even if they stop reading after that. We often place signs around the building to reinforce what we’ve sent via BuildingLink. And we send periodic newsletters to convey non-time-sensitive info of interest.
Before our Annual Meetings, we share a detailed President’s Report and solicit questions in advance. We have an agenda and a facilitator, so it’s orderly. We present slides on key topics and answer questions. Residents know who’s there and who’s speaking. Afterwards, we email the slides, along with answers to resident questions and an updated contact list.
Following this approach, we’ve been able to establish a closer and more trusting relationship with our residents. We haven’t shied away from sensitive topics, including litigation, staff changes, and the inevitable assessments and common charge increases. And we’ve gotten positive feedback, with some residents saying that they don’t have to ask questions because we’ve already provided the answers. So far, it’s working.
TINA LARSSON is co-founder and co-owner of The Folson Group, New York City’s leading co-op and condo business consultancy.