We Will Fight No More Forever

Here’s a resolution for the New Year: Your board will coexist, communicate, compromise, and generally cooperate like it never has before.

Experts are prized by our society, and rightly so. Our own industry demonstrates the importance of relying on professionals with appropriate experience, education, and credentials. But sometimes we defer too quickly to someone whose advice seems expert or who seems to speak with authority.

I recently saw this illustrated firsthand at a series of strategic-planning meetings I was facilitating for the board of directors of a major nonprofit professional association. As I observed several of the board’s working sessions, I noticed that one of the directors–the most disruptive one, really, who often held the board hostage–had successfully positioned himself as the source of all expertise related to the organization’s governance. He would show up with his laptop, a stack of papers, and a volume of Robert’s Rules of Order, and would be the first to jump in whenever a governance-related issue arose. In effect, he’d hijacked the role of “governance expert” without any open resistance from his fellow board members, who as a result had lots of pent-up frustration.

To deal with the governance expert, I advised the association’s chief executive officer and its board chair to bring their laptops, their copies of organizational bylaws, and their volumes of Robert’s Rules of Order, and to explicitly declare that they would provide clarification on any governance-related issues as they arose. And guess what? It turned out that many of the governance expert’s assertions were flat-out wrong. After this little intervention, he became less disruptive and more cooperative (and, truth be told, a bit disengaged).

There is more than one lesson to be drawn from this, but perhaps the most important is this: Cooperation equals communication. And sometimes, to facilitate cooperation among board members, you have to clear away the barriers to communication. Start with these tips.

TIP 1: KNOW SHORTHAND

Have you noticed whenever the CEO of a corporation resigns, the announcement is accompanied by a statement informing the interested public that the executive in question has decided to “pursue other interests” or “spend more time with family”? While expanding one’s horizons and building closer family relationships are both very honorable pursuits, what these statements usually mean is that the executive has been fired or forced to step down.

There are many similar shorthand phrases or expressions that we use to communicate in our communities. My favorite is “Can I help you?,” which in certain situations actually means “What are you doing here?” Another common shorthand phrase is “You wanna…” followed by a thinly veiled command–as in, “You wanna talk to him about that?,” which really means “I think it’s a good idea for you to talk with him about that.”

In most cases such shorthand functions as a sort of social lubricant, smoothing over possible unpleasantness and making conversation more efficient. But sometimes a person might use a well-worn phrase in a completely different way, leading to misunderstandings and even conflict. Thus, if you have the least bit of doubt, it’s always a good idea to ask people to clarify what they mean. It can only help you achieve a better outcome.

TIP 2: RESPECT ALL WORLDS

When a local TV news station recently interviewed someone who had been attacked by a tiger, the young woman looked shocked. “All I did was pet the tiger on the head,” she said. “I guess he didn’t like it.” The woman obviously meant well. In essence, what this TV news story was covering was a giant case of miscommunication–the woman and the tiger were “speaking” different languages.

But we don’t have to speak different languages to miscommunicate. It happens every day, among people of all nationalities, living in the same culture, speaking the same language–and serving on the same board. As you attempt to communicate with your colleagues and neighbors, remember that people (and tigers) live in their own little worlds, and anything that is perceived as a threat to that world is bound to generate resistance. That’s what makes it so hard for many board members–and, as a result, boards–to work together.

TIP 3: BE PATIENT

According to Carol Boerner, an exceptionally gifted ophthalmologist I know, “Sometimes the best cure is a tincture of time.” Carol uses this phrase to refer to various maladies of the body, but I think it applies equally to social situations.

For example, at a small condominium townhouse in Boston’s Back Bay, an affluent couple was flabbergasted when the association turned down their offer to renovate the entire building at their expense–to the tune of more than $100,000. What the couple overlooked was the fact that they made this offer a week after moving in, without consulting anyone else. To add insult to injury, they’d gone so far as to line up work crews and schedule a start-date. Thinking their world was under assault, the other owners went into an obviously defensive mode, and, voila, a seemingly wonderful offer went nowhere. In this case, a slower, more methodical approach–a good idea leavened by a tincture of time–might have yielded better results for everyone.

TIP 4: LIE WITH CARE

We all know implicitly and explicitly that lying is bad, and we sternly instruct our children never to lie. But we all lie occasionally. We even have euphemisms, such as “white lies.” If you start monitoring yourself, you’ll see how smoothly you weave lying into your daily routine. For most people, it’s simply a way to avoid confrontation or to accentuate the positive. When the board president asks how you’re doing, for example, and you reply that you’re fine when actually you’re not–that’s lying. When a resident apologizes for bringing a complaint to your attention and you say, “No, I’m glad you called”–that’s probably lying, too.

Then there’s corruption, which represents lying on a grand scale and often in an organized manner. Remarkably, when it comes to corruption–in organizations big and small, including associations and management companies–it’s rare for a group of people to hold a meeting and declare, “Let’s lie and be corrupt!” Usually it’s small lies that lead to big lies; then, if a meeting is held, its focus is more along the lines of trying to cover up the cumulative effects of all those small lies. So next time you’re in a board meeting and thinking about ignoring a minor detail because pointing it out might seem confrontational, step back and ask yourself whether this issue that seems small today will contribute to a larger corruption in the future.

TIP 5: RESPECT ALL AGES

Our awareness of age is pervasive. Subconsciously we quickly evaluate the age of the people we meet, even though it’s very bad form–and sometimes illegal–to ask how old they are.

Remarkably, our thinking about age and aging is so entrenched that it becomes self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, we tend to think of the elderly as grumpy, yet a recent study by the National Institutes of Health found that our personalities don’t change past age 30. But, drawing on these ill-informed stereotypes, we treat people differently based on their age, and that can lead to problems on a board, where often people of two or even three different generations serve side by side. It is important to transcend this tendency and recognize that life is much richer when we have contact with and exposure to a diversity of views and opinions, and that much diversity is provided through association with people of varied ages.

TIP 6: BE POSITIVE

Last spring, while exercising at my gym, I tore a muscle in my back. It was very painful, but it introduced me to other muscles and body parts I never knew I had. Well, of course, I knew I had them. I just didn’t appreciate them–mostly because they performed well.

Just as we take our good health for granted, we often fail to appreciate everything else that is going well in our lives, our workplaces, and our communities. Unfortunately, it’s human nature to dwell on the negative. Should something go wrong in our association, from a candy wrapper dropped by a careless resident to a policy we disagree with, we’re quite likely to pick up the phone to complain. But when was the last time you picked up the phone to tell your manager you appreciate the job she’s doing?

Positive thinking and a positive disposition are potent weapons. But don’t take my word for it. Make a special effort to go through a single day of gratitude and appreciation, taking note of everything that’s working well and thanking whoever is responsible. You’ll help set a positive tone for your board and make cooperation that much more feasible.

TIP 7: BE DIRECT

Before I moved to the five-unit condominium I now call home, the building was enmeshed in a slow-festering conflict with an elderly next-door neighbor (call her Margaret) who always fed unshelled peanuts to the squirrels. Often the squirrels would leave the shells in our gutters, clogging them and causing some of our living rooms to flood. We’re a self-managed community, so one of our owners (call him Jeff) had for years written cease-and-desist letters to Margaret’s building–to no avail. By the time I moved in, talk was turning to a lawsuit, so I offered to give Margaret a call.

She answered the phone after 9 on a Wednesday morning with a gruff “Hello, what do you want?,” accused me of waking her up, called me an unpleasant word, then asked why Jeff hadn’t sent any “nasty, threatening letters” recently. So she had been paying attention to them. We talked for another 45 minutes; or, she talked and I mostly listened. In the end, though, Margaret agreed not to feed the squirrels unshelled peanuts, and as of press time she’d kept her word.

I’m not suggesting the key to flawless cooperation is one phone call. But, this particular conflict was defused because I made an explicit attempt to treat Margaret with respect. By doing that, I kept the discussion going and increased the chances of a resolution. The next time someone raises your hackles–whether a resident, vendor, or fellow board member–try not to respond in kind. Instead, work to identify the root of the problem.

TIP 8: BE SENSITIVE

I’m a huge proponent of the civilized niceties that grace our lives. I believe in prompt, handwritten thank-you notes, doors held open, cheerful hellos, and generally giving credit where it’s due. But I also know that sometimes, in our preoccupation with our own hectic lives, we can jump to conclusions about someone’s seemingly rude behavior without being privy to everything guiding it. About 15 years ago, my mother and I were riding up an escalator behind a woman with two young children. The children were standing behind the woman, and at one point they stumbled and fell back toward me. I caught and steadied them, then launched into a discussion about escalator safety loud enough for the woman to hear. To this my mother responded quietly, “You never know what might have been on that woman’s mind.”

No, I never will know what was on that woman’s mind, just as you’ll never truly know what is on the minds of your board colleagues when they disagree with you, cut you off, or seem to give you the cold shoulder. Regardless, it’s important to realize that a person’s response to you is not always directly related to you. When you deal with board members, managers, or other professionals, keep in mind that they too are human beings with their own preoccupations. I remember when a manager’s boyfriend of many years unexpectedly died of a heart attack. Needless to say, the manager was grief-stricken; yet within two weeks, her board members became anxious that she wasn’t responding to their inquiries promptly. Clearly this was a situation where more patience was called for.

Again, I’m not advocating a lack of professionalism here. But be mindful not to jump to conclusions from single acts or isolated responses, no matter how you perceive them. Sometimes giving someone the benefit of the doubt is the first step on the road to communication–and cooperation.

Common Ground, January/February 2005

Jasmine Martirossian, Ph.D.

 

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