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How to Reconcile Different Decision-Making Styles

Dear Mary: 

When it comes to spending money, we seem to have two opposing teams on our co-op board. “Team Spreadsheet” makes decisions purely on hard dollars. The “People Team” wants to consider softer issues. We’ve argued over paying staff bonuses, waiving alteration fees and splitting revenue with our laundry vendor. And that’s just in the last few months. Each “team” is convinced that they — and they alone — know the right way to be fiscally prudent. Is there a way we can get past this split as we work to fulfill our fiduciary duties? 

—Divided in Douglaston


Dear Divided:

People have very different ideas about what constitutes financial responsibility in their personal and business lives. They bring those ideas to their work as board members. You’re unlikely to change your colleagues’ deeply held beliefs and biases. But you can smooth the way to coming to good solutions that work for your building. 

Consider these techniques: 


Give the benefit of the doubt. It’s easy to dismiss others as unwilling or unable to take their financial duty seriously, particularly if you’ve had contentious disagreements in the past. But don’t do it. Instead, you should act as if your fellow board members have good intentions and the intelligence to make sound decisions. This may sound too basic — or too risky! — but if you want to work with others toward high-quality decisions, you need to show that you see them as well intentioned and capable. 


Confirm shared goals. Start by voicing agreement on what all your board members want to achieve. Goals at this very high level could include doing what’s best for the building as a whole, being fiscally prudent and acting in a way that will keep property values up. Making these high-level goals explicit is an effective way to find — and build on — common ground. And it can make the board feel more like one team with a common purpose.  


Reassure the ‘other side.’ No matter which side you’re on, you can get closer to agreement simply by acknowledging the other side’s points — thereby showing that you’re not an extremist. Are you on the hard-nosed Team Spreadsheet? Let your colleagues know that you recognize the need to consider how board decisions affect people as well as dollars in the bank. Are you on the more soft-hearted People Team? Make sure your colleagues don’t think you’re unaware of the need to be careful with the shareholders’ money. Do whatever you can to signal that you understand and appreciate competing approaches to making responsible financial decisions. 


Try to quantify ‘soft’ returns. Instead of talking about “spending,” talk about “investing.” What will you get in return if you do or do not “invest” the money in question? Can you quantify softer results? Maybe staff holiday bonuses improve loyalty and performance. That can reduce turnover and its associated cost. Perhaps forfeiting a penalty or fee for a shareholder (where warranted) can improve good will and even forestall litigation. There’s a financial value to that. A more favorable revenue-sharing arrangement with a vendor — or a lower rent to a commercial tenant — might strengthen that relationship in a way that literally pays off later. This approach can make it easier to compare different solutions. 


There’s no easy way to eliminate the “divide” you describe. But you don’t need to do that. What you do need is a way to resolve different viewpoints into a workable solution. The above techniques can help.


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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