New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community

Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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ARCHIVE ARTICLE

The "Why Bother?" Syndrome

It's a simple story, but one that gets repeated all too frequently in cooperative and condominium circles. It's the tale of a veteran board president, who had served for over a decade as president of his small cooperative. Although he had joined with great enthusiasm and high hopes, eventually he found himself growing increasingly more disenchanted with his board.

The president now dreaded the monthly meetings of the directors, with their interminable discussions about lobby care, shareholder complaints, and budget woes. He got increasingly more irritated with the manager, who seemed to get into frequent verbal fights with the treasurer. In the early days of his service, he took pride in unruffling ruffled feathers and keeping things running smoothly. Now, after 12 years, he couldn't care less.

When the next annual election came along, the president didn't tell the other board members what he was going to do. He just sent in a letter of resignation and didn't even attend the annual meeting. He felt liberated. He said to friends that he was "burnt out."

Burnt out or simply "bored out" - with the grinding responsibilities of being on the board? Board members, in high-stress, low-reward jobs are ideal candidates for a variation of a very serious disease. "I find that it happens a lot," says Steve Greenbaum, director of management at Mark Greenberg Real Estate. "Some board members get to the point where they really have to step down. They do too much and just get burnt out."

Whether you're burnt out or simply bored out of your mind, there are signs of the problem's onset and also ways to cope with it. Be warned: if you don't cope with the situation, your property will suffer.

BURNOUT

Full-scale burnout is total exhaustion - mental, physical, and emotional - brought on by a demanding job that involves close contact with other people. It usually occurs when the pressures are high and the rewards low.

"If you're a hard worker who gives 110 percent, an idealistic, self-motivated achiever who thinks anything is possible if you just work hard enough, you're a possible candidate," observe Lyle H. Miller, Ph.D., and Alma Dell Smith, Ph.D. in The Stress Solution. "The same is true if you're a rigid perfectionist with unrealistically high standards and expectations. In a job with little recognition and few rewards for work well done, particularly with frequent people contact or deadlines, you advance from a possible to a probable candidate."

Generally, burnout victims start with high expectations only to find that the job is full of hidden obstacles, continuous stress, and little positive feedback. Burnout occurs not because of the personal failings of an individual, but because of outside conditions over which the victim has no control.

"Burnout is job depression," explains Beverly Potter, author of Overcoming Job Burnout: How to Renew Enthusiasm for Work and Finding a Path to the Heart: How to Go from Burnout to Bliss. "It's caused by feelings of powerlessness - 'damned if you do, damned if you don't'-type situations." She adds that "occasional feelings of frustration, anger, depression, dissatisfaction, and anxiety are normal parts of living and working. But people caught in the burnout cycle usually experience these negative emotions more often until they become chronic. In the worst cases, people complain of a kind of emotional fatigue or depletion."

BORED OUT

Board members - and especially workaholic presidents and treasurers - can experience burnout, especially if they work in high-stress jobs that involve a great commitment of time and energy.

"If a person has a rotten job, and he feels kind of powerless in that job, they could bring it with them to the board meetings because it's more of the same," Potter notes. "They could exacerbate one another. Being on the board alone would not cause burnout. But a person can feel 'burnt out' about being on the board, dragging himself to the meeting. If they have a job that they feel powerless in, and they have minimal outside relationships, then the experience on the board is going to be more harmful."

Boredom, too, can lead to lack of productivity and, for buildings that rely on their directors to guide them successfully, that can be as serious a matter as full-scale burnout. Long-serving board members are at great risk of suffering from this type of situation. They often have a heavy, stressful workload, a strong desire to do a good job, face frequent personal confrontations, volunteer their time, have around-the-clock availability, are under constant criticism, and can generally feel underappreciated and exploited.

"It's a pressure cooker situation," says Potter, who notes that boredom and unproductivity can be contagious. One depressed, low-energy naysayer - especially if he is the president - can lead to frustration and non-productivity among other board members. Rather than a "can do" philosophy, a "contaminated" board will suffer from a "Why bother?" syndrome - which is, of course, ultimately a bad thing for the property.

That, in turn, can lead to a vicious cycle, Potter notes. "People on the board can't get away from their fellow board members; they may have been drafted onto the board, and they're now embroiled in this situation that can become highly political and contentious, with a lot of conflict and stress. It's worse because they live there and they meet these people in the elevator every day. That poisons their home life, which can make a person feel helpless and trapped."

SIGNS OF TROUBLE

If the cause of "bored out" is feeling powerless, then the way to deal with it is to feel empowered and in control. Experts say that being in control has a lot to do with a person's way of thinking. "They have limited skills in managing their own head," Potter observes. "They're staying awake all night ruminating about a fellow board member and what a jerk he is. Burnout is stressful. Stress is like the fever of burnout. You've got to bring that stress down. You go to Hawaii and lie on the beach and get nice and relaxed, but then you come back, and there's that co-op board and nothing has changed."

Therefore, the best way to protect against a potential "bored out" situation is to make changes in the way your board operates. The first step is to watch for the signs of trouble in yourself and those around you.

"When the person or persons who have been ball carriers start dropping the ball that's one sign," says Herb Cooper-Levy, a former consultant to cooperatives and condominiums. "When meetings start being missed, when quorums are difficult to achieve, when important issues get ducked, when some of the simple stuff stops happening - minutes are not done, notices are not being posted - and when tasks that used to be done by six or seven people are being done by three, that's the first sign of burnout. It's the advance warning. It's like coming on the sign that says the road will end in a mile-and-a-quarter. You now know that the road will end in a mile-and-a-quarter."

Things can be even more serious if the symptoms start appearing in the person who is designated as your leader: the president. He may not recognize the problem in himself, so it is up to the other board members - or the managing agent - to talk with him. If he is dismissive or resistant, the board can diplomatically point to the signs it has noted. In worst case scenarios, it can vote to remove him from office.

"Buildings know when there's a problem," says Greenbaum. "When that happens, it's up to the managing agent to step up to the plate and be sure the building is being run properly." But, he adds, "When you have a president who has been hands-on and he has to step down, sometimes the building can be left floundering."

PREVENTION: A CURE

That is all the more reason for the board to take preventive steps. Among them:

Delegate. The most efficient board leaders don't try to do everything themselves, but instead spread out the workload. If they don't, over time, they face the possibility of being overwhelmed by the job.

"It's a business," observes John Warwick, president of the 100-unit 605 Park Avenue cooperative since 1991. "You have to use as many of the directors as will participate in sharing responsibilities. We have formal and informal committees and divide up duties."

Not only do they share work, the seven directors also share a respect for each other and each other's rights. "All opinions are listened to. We have an agenda and anyone can add to it, so they all feel like they're participating. When you do that, it spreads outward from the board to the residents. You try to create an atmosphere of civility, serenity, and openness."

"A lot of times, the president feels that no one is going to do it quite as well as they're going to do it, and that may or may not be true," observes Arthur Davis, a consultant to boards. "What happens is they don't delegate properly, and they wind up doing everything themselves and getting burnt out."

Seek out new recruits. Recruit new members for the board. They will inject new ideas, bring new enthusiasm, and will be ready to step in when you are thinking about stepping down.

"If we see someone who might be a good candidate for the board - and we see someone who might want to step off the board - then we might go to them and say, 'Give consideration to running for the board; you have good credentials,'" Warwick notes.

Some boards have even set up programs in which "trainees" - non-voting shareholders - sit on the board, getting experience on how it runs, as a kind of "farm team." Other buildings have developed committee systems as a training ground. "Whenever there's an issue that's going to come up, we tell everyone in the building," says Terry Andreas, 23-year veteran president of the 52-unit 75 Central Park West co-op. "That's very helpful, too, because people will call you and say, 'I know something about that.' And now you have a volunteer."

Express yourself. Don't bottle things up. If you have complaints, air them. Reach out to other people. Compare notes with board members from other buildings, or discuss the problem of overwork within your own board. Get your colleagues talking; you may find they share your frustrations.

"Sometimes, I just let them talk until they're tired," Andreas says. "One time, I told one member that I was not his mother. People are nice but sometimes they get irritable because something's gone wrong. That's not the end of the world. They get over it. It's important to listen to them, however, realizing that there are some things you can't do. And when they get tired of being angry, you just tell them nicely that it just can't be done."

Prioritize tasks and time. Prioritizing makes sense. Again, it keeps you from becoming overwhelmed. Gerald Sherwin, president of the 115-unit 181 East 73rd Street co-op since 1985, says that he applies the same mental outlook to serving on the board that he has used in running his own business.

"You use good business judgment. You know how to read spreadsheets, you know what things cost, to a degree. Since you're dealing with a lot of different people - staff, board members, fellow shareholders - you have to have good time-management skills. You have to have good follow-up."

Adds Warwick: "You have to set objectives, and you have to be ahead of the problems, just like you'd be in a business."
Set limits. Learn to realize your limits and how to say "no." According to Cooper-Levy, "It's the person who doesn't know how to say 'no' who's in danger of burnout. What happens sometimes is that some people say, 'I'm really at the point of overload so I'm going to cut back.' They know their limits. But when they stop, the remaining people take on their workload because they didn't know where their limit was. A simple prescription for avoiding burnout is learning how to answer a question with a two-letter answer."

By the same token, don't spend every waking hour worrying about board business. Spend time with friends and family. Pursue your hobbies. Potter says that preventing boredom problems means developing strong supports. "People who have a strong social support system are healthier; they live longer. Friends distract a person and help that person come back to balance."

"This board member is doing this volunteer job in their free time," adds Cooper-Levy. "Whenever this board member finds he is spending an increasing amount of time in his work day or his personal time on board work, burnout is ahead. He has to set boundaries: 'This is my work time, this is my personal time, this is my co-op time.' You've got problems when you find yourself walking the halls every morning making sure they are cleaned. There's burnout ahead. The largest amount of time should be spent on ourselves - on rest - then work is next, then family. Community activities are important but they come after self, work, and family."

Sherwin is a case in point. He says he has "never reached the point where I said, 'Wow, this is too much,' or 'I've got other things to do,'" and adds that one reason for that is because "I'm pretty satisfied with a well-balanced life. I like the feeling that I'm able to help by giving everyone the enjoyment of the building."

Find new challenges. Look for new challenges, so the role doesn't become routine. If you're bored, it may be time to go. Warwick admits that after serving for over a decade, the job can become repetitious but that there are still new problems, new laws, and new concerns that keep it interesting.

"I've served for 20-odd years, and for most of the time as treasurer," recalls Carl Wish, a board member at the 54-unit 70 Riverside Drive. "The challenges of a building that needed a lot of work, plus the economic challenges of the city over time, and the rising tax burden, and garage [tax] problems have kept us going pretty well. We went through total [replacement of] electric, heating, and window systems, and that has kept it fairly fresh. There's always something new; there's always something breaking down, always something that could be brought up to code, always something that could be improved."

He adds: "If you don't have an ongoing interest like finances - the financial interest never goes away - I don't know if you would keep being stimulated for 20 years. I think it's best that shareholders don't serve an inordinate amount of time. It's good to have fresh faces and new blood just to keep up the enthusiasm."

Keep perspective. As film director Alfred Hitchcock once said to actress Ingrid Bergman, when she was becoming anguished over her character's motivation, "Ingrid, it's only a movie." Don't take everything so seriously. It is a serious job, but it is not a life-or-death scenario.

Potter says that one way to do that is to try and practice "detached concern." "It's similar to when you play sports," she explains. "You play on the field to win but when it's over, you let the desire to win go. You say, 'That was a great game,' even if you lost. You're not supposed to go into the locker room and stomp around and get furious. That's how you practice detached concern. You put it all out but then you let it go. 'Don't take it personally' is another way of referring to this dynamic. But we're control freaks; we don't want to let it go."

Sherwin, who has seen ups and downs at his property in his nearly 20 years as president, keeps his perspective by realizing that "nobody in life is irreplaceable. I'm not infallible. You should not put as much pressure on yourself. It's what we all tend to do if you want to do a good job. Sometimes situations happen. So I say, 'Step back, take a deep breath,' and then think about things. Life goes on and you do the best you can. Don't waffle. Make decisions. I learned a long time ago in business that the worst thing you can do is not to make a decision."

Marianne Dimino, who has served for six years as president of the 215-unit Newport Apartments co-op in Flushing, feels that one way to cope is to "not take it so seriously. It's not the end of the world. It's just one building. You have to keep things in perspective and not blow them out of proportion. I don't look at things as disasters. Maybe that's helped me not to have burnout. My glass is always half-full not half-empty. Nothing is life-and-death, thank God."

One way to keep balanced is to remember how to see the humor in situations. As one wag observed, "Life's a big joke: it only hurts if you forget to laugh." Most long-serving board members understand that pressure can be relieved by realizing that everything is relative.

"You have to have a sense of humor in anything you do in life," Sherwin says. "Sure, things are serious - you're dealing with people's money and you have lots of responsibilities - but there are times when you just have to sit back and shake your head and laugh. It's a way of keeping sanity in any pressured situation. You keep your head above water by keeping your sense of humor."

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