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Habitat Magazine Business of Management 2021

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BOARD OPERATIONS

HOW CO-OP/CONDO BOARDS OPERATE

How to Deliver Bad News in a Way That Builds Trust

Mary Federico in Board Operations on February 3, 2021

New York City

Co-op and condo boards, bad news, communication, shareholder and unit-owner trust.
Feb. 3, 2021

If you serve on your co-op or condo board, it’s inevitable that one day you’ll have to deliver bad news to your shareholders or unit-owners. Maybe an expensive and highly visible capital project has fallen seriously behind schedule. Maybe you have to increase common charges way more than expected. Or maybe mandated work on your elevators – combined with COVID-19 restrictions – has residents up in arms about long elevator wait times. 

Delivering this kind of bad news will never be easy or enjoyable for any board, but if you approach it the right way, it can be far less traumatic than you may fear. It can even be an opportunity to build trust with residents. How? Focus on timing, content, and tone by following these suggestions:

Timing: Share bad news as quickly as possible – before someone else beats you to it. Why? Because whoever communicates first has control of the story. They’ll frame it to meet their goals. Those might not be your goals, nor those of your residents. If you’re reacting, you can sound defensive. 

If you don’t have all the details yet, shouldn’t you wait? Isn’t it confusing to give an incomplete story? For bad news, the answer is usually “no.” Instead, communicate what you know, when you know it. Commit to sharing further details when you have them. Then meet that commitment. 

There are three things to keep in mind: it’s almost impossible to keep bad news a secret; residents won’t wait for you to give them the go-ahead before they talk among themselves; and in an information vacuum, residents will create a narrative, and at some point that narrative will become impervious to attempts to correct it. 

Content: Tempted to bury the bad news inside a broader communication? Sometimes that’s appropriate, but there are risks. If no one recognizes the news for what it is, you’ll wind up behind the curve. If you don’t address the questions the residents will eventually have, they might make up their own answers to fill in the blanks. And finally, you might come off sounding as if you care more about protecting yourself than about residents’ legitimate need for information.

Instead, be straightforward. Present the facts and their effect on residents. Briefly explain why the situation exists, avoiding defensiveness or finger-pointing. Imagine questions the situation raises, and include answers. Describe how you’re making things better. Acknowledge residents’ inconvenience and pain, and thank them for their patience and understanding. Commit to following up with further details, and give owners a way to ask questions or make suggestions. (Note: If the bad news involves a legal matter, be sure to consult with your attorney!)


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Tone: All written communications should be easy to read, and they should sound as if they come from a concerned neighbor, not an attorney (sorry!) or a faceless corporation. Dig out one of your past “bad news” documents. Are there short paragraphs, bullet points and readable font – or an enormous block of tiny text?

Assess its readability. Is it written for a layperson – or filled with jargon and legalese? If you already know the content, you’re not the best judge of readability. Let someone else review and comment, or use Microsoft’s “readability statistics” feature.

Read it out loud. Does it sound like one human talking to another in a tone that’s friendly, respectful, empathic? Or is it distant and overly formal? Does it sound defensive or dismissive? If so, fix it before sharing it with residents. 

 Delivering bad news is vastly easier when owners already trust you. But quick, clear, “human” communication can help foster trust. Follow the suggestions above, and you can turn this unwelcome duty into an opportunity. You might even come out ahead! 

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 build trust, communicate more effectively, manage change and deal with team dynamics. Her email address is mary.federico@obstrategies.com.

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