February 27th, 2013 by David Burman
With a now 13 year old young man skulking around my house, I have been introduced to a lot of things. Some new erratic attitudes, a trendy new vernacular (“hit me up before you bounce”?), indescribable concepts of truth and logic, and most noticeably, new odors and the uproarious hilarity found in the public expression of bodily functions. There is indeed a little guy expanding in our home somewhere. I don’t usually see him but I know he is there because my fresh box of Apple Jacks look like a sugar starved weasel found them. But one thing that has been quite enjoyable for me is the super heroes. I had all but forgotten about the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and the Transformers of my youth. Since my son prefers the bad guys (villains are free of any moral obligation to warn their dads before delivering a brutal kidney punch), I now have the equivalent of a Masters-level education in beady-eyed villainy.
The good news is that the majority of people we encounter on a daily basis are not villains. They are fundamentally honest people who do not pass blame or fail to accept responsibility for their own actions and decisions. Most at some point understand that the solution to their concern may not be within the scope or authority of the Association, even if it may be difficult to reach that point. But the difficult personalities do exist and as we each work through each day, we will inevitably encounter them.
But unlike some work environments, where interaction with a difficult person may be temporary and fleeting, until someone sells their home, community managers and Board members may be forever married to the problematic member.
My son is not the only daydreamer in my family and I have been caught flying my share of imaginary jet fighters around my desk, making jet engine and machine gun noises. So on the rare occasions I interact with a difficult person, I may think of the Batman villains and their unique traits.
The classic Batman villain is difficult because he will dishonestly adapt his attitude and demeanor to their audience. Two Face will all but curse your family to eternity on the phone or in your office. At the Board meeting, Two Face is the model of civility and politeness. Whether he knows it or not, Two Face seeks to elicit a very predictable human response from you one day, and then clothe himself in a super hero’s cape the next.
Crazy is the only way to describe this villain. In the comics, The Riddler has been bullied and marginalized and has much deeper problems than anything that can be within the purview of the Association. The Riddler causes everyone that crosses their path, from the server at Denny’s, to their nurse in the hospital, the same distress that he causes the community manager and the Board. The Riddler will never temper his anger or change the way he approaches the community. Every community has a Riddler who simply cannot be placated or satisfied.
The Joker seeks fame and celebrity. The Joker wants his grievances aired in public and before the largest audience possible. More than anything else, they want a pound of flesh extracted before as many fellow citizens as possible. We all have a little Joker in us. But in the world of community associations, the Joker is the member who brings up every concern, minor and major, new and old, at a meeting and only at a meeting. As managers, we resolve issues every day based on single phone calls and emails. The system works as it should. But the Joker, perhaps even unknowingly, creates a perception that the owners cannot get attention without it being the cause celebre.
Okay, Doctor Octopus is not technically a Batman villain. Doctor Octopus has tentacles designed to punch at Spiderman from all directions. When you think you have blocked a punch, another one gets you from behind. Instead of focusing on a single issue or related group of issues the Doctor unloads all issues together, muddying and certainly delaying the discussion and ultimately the resolution. Conversing with Doctor Octopus is like trying to untie a knot in your shoelaces and getting gum out of your hair at the same time.
So how does a community manager deal with the villains without a functional magic lasso or x-ray vision?
Good guys who fight with villains on their level usually end up at least a little bloodied and bruised themselves. Remain at all times professional, steady, and cordial. Do not change the tone or nature of your replies or assistance simply because a villain is on the receiving end. Never ignore the villain and even if you cannot provide the results the villain demands, maintain your politeness. Understand the reality that the villain isn’t going anywhere, so while you may of course be stern and forceful, your demeanor must be steady and unassailable.
An educated and informed Board and educated membership is any manager’s most valuable asset. Board members who have access to the day-to-day events in the community are far more likely to support the manager during the tough times. Conversely, Board members who are surprised by the villains will feel betrayed. Villains rarely acknowledge that there are realities that the Board and management are charged with respecting. But even if the villain does not recognize it, the Board and management must be able to rely on timely facts and reality.
Honesty and Integrity
The sad reality is that community managers, community associations, and Boards of Directors are sometimes the target of unfair and even dishonest claims, assertions, and perceptions. Always, always, always, remain committed to the truth. If you make a mistake, take responsibility for it. A lie from the Board or management will be far worse than whatever the initial debate was about. Diversion, misdirection, and deceit are counter-productive and simply cannot lead to resolution. Lastly, do not automatically discount or marginalize the complaint from any member, much less the villain. Recognizing the nature of the concern shows that you are willing to be reasonable.
Ultimately, difficult people realize that human nature is rather predictable and can be used to get the predictable response they need. Yell at a person and he is likely to yell back. Speak calmly and they are likely to respond calmly. Just like my son, who is right now peering from behind the bedroom wall, they seek a gap in your armor which they will promptly attack. People can be excused for poor behavior. We have all behaved and reacted in ways that we later find embarrassing. Even if the villains never quite reach that conclusion, remember that the Board and management should remain calm, attentive to the truth, and respectful of all members. While I am trying to live up to my own lofty advice, I have heard that my phone company is offering a new feature called Caller Shock Therapy. I may try it out.