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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

HABITAT

ARCHIVE ARTICLE

Getting Slackers to Step Up

Dear Mary:

I have been president of my Brooklyn co-op board for the past 10 years. Though the board has seven members, it seems that I and two other members do all the work and make all the decisions. Is there a way we three active board members can get the four slackers to become more involved and productive?

— Frustrated in Brooklyn

 

Dear Frustrated:

It’s normal to have some board members doing more work than others. Still, even one uninvolved member can reduce your board’s effectiveness – and make active members feel exploited. What to do?

Your first step is to identify the behavior you want to change. State it neutrally: Four board members are not currently contributing.

The second step is to brainstorm possible reasons for their behavior. You’ll need to do some analysis, as you would with any building-related problem. When the elevator breaks down, you look for causes, then solutions that address those causes. Though human behavior is way more complex, the same kind of thinking applies.

One critical caveat! Do not focus on personalities. Don’t say – even to yourself – that members aren’t contributing because they’re “slackers.” Or “lazy,” “entitled,” etc. That’s a dead end. Instead, consider these four possibilities and steps you might take to deal with them:

 

Your ambivalence. Do you really want more members involved? It’s much easier to coordinate and make decisions with a small group. If additional members get active, you’ll have to do more organizing, delegating and follow-up. You’ll have to trust more members, and you’ll have less control. Are members sensing your ambivalence? You might need to do some soul-searching. Don’t go any further unless you’re quite sure you want to do this.

 

Unclear expectations or needs. Have you given all board members a full picture of the workload and what’s expected of them? Members have their own ideas about the level and type of involvement that’s appropriate. Less-involved members might not appreciate how much there is to do or what’s falling through the cracks. Don’t assume anything. Share the big picture at your board meetings, so everyone has the same context. Then speak to members one-on-one, privately. Understand their needs and limitations. Ask whether and how they might consider getting more involved.

 

Past ‘punishments.’ What happens to members when they do get involved? Happy things – or angst? Did someone micromanage the member who volunteered to run the gym committee? Did the board completely ignore recommendations from the member who researched new roof contractors? Do members have traumatic memories from the hallway redecoration project? Members who experience – or just witness – negative results may not want to get involved. Have a board conversation about this. Acknowledge missteps and any lingering pain. Discuss what you can all do to make board involvement less fraught and more rewarding.

 

Role conflicts. Have you matched your requests to each member’s available time and capability? Do members see themselves as having a role on the board? Or do they feel like part of an undifferentiated group whose contributions are neither identified nor appreciated? Your board is a team. One of the keys to a smooth-running team is for every member to have a definable role that he or she is willing and able to fulfill. Talk – and listen – to your members. See if you can agree on a role that fits them and meets the board’s needs.

What if it turns out that all four of these board members are, indeed, lazy slackers who want the advantages of being on the board but don’t intend to lift a finger? That’s a topic for another time. Meanwhile, the approach above should help you get some more involvement. Good luck!

 

Have a question for Ask Mary? Submit it to submissions@habitatmag.com

 

Mary Federico serves on the board of her 240-unit Upper West Side condominium. Through her consultancy, Organizational Behavior Strategies, she helps leaders use behavioral science to improve their organizations.

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