Things are about to get very busy at our condominium, as we start a series of long-planned projects. Some — including lobby renovations and a new fire alarm system — will create a lot of disruption for unit-owners. Our board is confident about the planning and financing side of the projects. What’s got us worried is our relationship with the owners. To put it bluntly, they don’t seem to trust us. They second-guess our decisions, sometimes down to the nitty-gritty details. They don’t seem to believe what we tell them. Many buildings have one or two owners who feel that the board is trying to get away with something. We have dozens. In the past, this lack of trust has caused acrimony and costly delays. What can we do to make it better ASAP?
— Distrusted in Dumbo
Everything runs more smoothly when there’s a trusting relationship between the board and owners. When owners trust you, they believe what you say, and they’re inclined to support your decisions. They give you the benefit of the doubt and forgive your mistakes. Trust can be a board’s superpower.
But here’s the thing: You can’t build trust overnight (though you can destroy it in a minute). I don’t know what got you into your current situation. And I can’t say how long it will take you to turn things around. But I can say that it’s time to start!
Take these steps to get your board on the trust-building path:
Communicate transparently. You may be communicating with owners, but are you doing so in a way that builds trust? Transparent boards show a bias toward sharing — rather than hiding — relevant info, including bad news. They get information out frequently and in a timely fashion. Their communication is clear, consistent and friendly in tone. And they don’t make the mistake of thinking that owners can read their minds. Instead, they take the time to share details about the factors and thinking that go into their decisions. Explain how you sorted through the pros and cons of keeping the current fire alarm system, and why you decided to purchase a new one.
Show your trustworthiness. Keeping promises is a big part of building trust. So is following a fair process. For example, owners should be able to see that building rules apply equally to everyone, including board members and their friends. And there’s an even more fundamental element: People trust those who share their values, interests, goals and concerns. Given that you are acting on behalf of the owners — and are owners yourselves — there should be plenty of overlap here. But do the other owners know that? Make sure they do. When you talk about the new fire alarm system, acknowledge your shared concern about the disruption. Emphasize the safety benefits you’ll all enjoy when it’s done.
Show trust in your owners. People trust those who trust them. The owners are not your enemies, and you shouldn’t treat them as if they are. Trust them with information (as above). Solicit their input — and then show that you’re doing something with it. You don’t have to do what everyone asks, but they should know that you’ve considered it. When they give you unsolicited feedback, don’t assume they’re trying to attack you. Respond in a neutral and timely manner. Finally, give them choices whenever you can. Make sure they have a say in that lobby renovation — instead of presenting them with the board’s final decision.
It won’t be immediate. But the science behind building trust is clear. Follow these steps consistently, and your relationship with your owners will improve.
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.