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Group Think

Dear Mary:

Our board is considering increasing owner involvement through committees. Unit-owners have asked for this, but I’m wary. We tried this a few years ago and it didn’t work out. Both owners and board members found the process upsetting and disappointing. I’m not sure who — if anyone — was to blame. In any case, board members seem to have forgotten about that experience and are ready to try again. Any advice for how we might approach this without repeating the past?


— Wary in the West Village


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.


Dear Wary:

You’re wise to be cautious. Increasing owner involvement through committees can have a very positive effect on a building. It can lead to improved operations and projects, foster commitment to change and increase trust between the board and owners. On the other hand, it can create unmet expectations, waste a massive amount of time and generate hard feelings and resentment. It seems you may have had that latter experience.

To get on the right path, it helps to think through a few things in advance.  


Prepare to manage. Committees are not completely independent entities that will magically run on their own. They need the ongoing involvement of a board member: first to ensure the goals and establish clear roles, and then to provide ongoing guidance, answer questions, course-correct when necessary, serve as an intermediary to the board, etc. Don’t have anyone to do this? Then you’re not ready for a committee.

Know your goals. What exactly are you trying to achieve? Suppose you’re contemplating a lobby renovation committee. Do you want volunteers to take on tasks that board members might not have time to do, such as gathering information on other lobby renovations in your neighborhood? Are you looking for a way to get broader input from owners to foster commitment to a change? For example, the committee could gather owner reactions to different colors, styles, proposals, etc. Do you need particular expertise, such as interior design experts, to improve the outcome? Having a specific and shared goal will help you determine how to move forward.

Clarify the committee’s decision-making role. What are committee members empowered to do? Are they limited to providing information that the board will use to make decisions? Can they advise the board? Can they make any decisions themselves? You must ensure shared clarity on this point. Perhaps you want the lobby committee to bring back ideas from other buildings, and to react to styles and color schemes. You plan to make the design decision yourself, based on that feedback and other factors. But what if the committee members thought they were going to make a recommendation that you would simply accept? You can inadvertently create hard feelings by setting expectations and not meeting them.

Commit to allowing some influence. Bear in mind that involving people does not mean you ask for their input and then simply do what you were going to do anyway. If that’s your plan, you’re better off not asking in the first place. So regardless of the arrangement, you need to give the committee members some level of influence over something. And you need to communicate the results of that influence both to the committee and to the building as a whole. Are you moving ahead with the lobby committee’s recommended design? Let everyone know. 

So go ahead and set up a committee, with a responsible board member in charge. Just be sure you and the committee members are in agreement on the goal, the committee’s decision-making role and where they’ll have influence. Good luck!

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