Keeping your calm, taking responsibility, and hearing members out makes all the difference in effectively neutralizing negativity.
It’s something few AEs want to discuss: the member who seems to have a personal grudge against you or the association, or the volunteer leader who opposes your initiatives and challenges your leadership out of the blue. Every association executive faces disruptive members from time to time, and they can rattle normal practices and habits.
Handling difficult members is a unique challenge every time, but you can be more prepared with these tips shared by AEs who’ve been there.
Della D. Csehoski, e-PRO, RCE, AE at the Cambria Somerset Association of REALTORS®, Penn., says the key to neutralizing negative or disruptive members at her small association is the personal approach. “I take the time to know my members and care about them,” she says. “When a difficult issue or member pops up, I rely on the rest of the membership to back me up.”
If an agent is the problem, Csehoski speaks with the agent’s broker. If a broker is the problem, she asks her board president to speak with the broker. “If that doesn’t solve it, I take the issue to the membership or full board of directors.” She never gives the person’s name until a decision is made, so there is no bias. She advises that you always hear that difficult person out, play devil’s advocate, and give all the facts.
John B. Leonardi, RCE, CEO of the Buffalo Niagara Association of REALTORS®, N.Y., says many AEs fall into the trap of thinking that volunteers are their friends. “Volunteers are great people. They volunteer because they are civic-minded and they deeply care for their association, but they aren’t our friends. Maintain a professional relationship and be open and honest leaders.”
One instance stands out in Leonardi’s mind: “Several years ago, I had a member send an anonymous letter to all of the directors and past presidents that stated misconduct, abuse, and negligence on my part. It even mentioned my spouse,” Leonardi recalls. “It literally tore the board apart. There was outrage and disgust for several months. At every director meeting it was discussed: Who would send this letter and why?”
Although the allegations were initially dismissed, some directors started asking questions about the validity of the content of the letter, which had to do with a credit card charge.
Leonardi took action. First, he consulted with his association attorney and an outside accountant. The secretary-treasurer who audits the credit card statements each month said he reviewed the charge in question and it didn’t exist. Then the accountant qualified that statement. Next, Leonardi revised his director orientation from one hour to four so that all directors could learn how to review the association’s annual financial audits and understand the CEO’s role and financial obligations as well as their own duties.
“I really thought that this open-book approach worked, but no, there were still rumblings about the erroneous credit card charge. It hung in the room like cigar smoke for months,” Leonardi says. Finally, he took it head on. “I requested we go into executive session. Everyone was shocked and confused and some thought I was resigning. I started out by stating, ‘There must be a strong level of trust between me as the CEO, the executive committee, and you, the board member. Clearly, there isn’t.’ I pulled out my credit card and my statements and put them on the table and invited everyone to inspect them. Then I said, ‘To be a strong association, to prosper and make decisions that are best for our membership, we must be open, honest, and in lockstep.’”
The personal and heartfelt appeal worked. The meeting continued without a hitch and Leonardi received a bonus that year. The director suspected of writing the anonymous letter resigned the next month.
“At every meeting, to this day, I conclude my report by saying, ‘Are there any concerns or questions? This is your association; feel free to ask me or the executive committee anything,’” says Leonardi, “but there are never any takers.”
Transparency in policy and practice is key to preventing disruptions at your association but sometimes there’s no defense. When issues arise, stay professional, contact your association attorney, and discuss matters with your elected leaders, recommends Donna Garcia, NAR’s director of HR and business services.
“Follow your policies consistently and treat each member fairly, because you never want a member to feel slighted or unimportant,” says Garcia. “Many times, misunderstandings arise from miscommunication so it’s always best to address any problems immediately. The longer you wait, the longer the anger festers.”
From her experience advising AEs faced with disruptive members, Garcia say members will tend to back off when they know that their behaviors will not be tolerated. She also advises that AEs should attempt to resolve issues on their own first; then, if that doesn’t work, involve leadership. “I strongly recommend that the AE have another person present when meeting with an irate member, either board counsel or someone from leadership.”
Unfortunately, Garcia has seen cases when the AE does not prevail. “There may be instances where the cards are stacked against you and you need to work on your exit strategy,” she says. “If that occurs, assess the situation and think about what, if anything, you could have done differently so that you can make a fresh start.”
AE Carol Platt on Managing Disruptive Members
From volunteers who suddenly quit their duties to board members who feel personally offended by a new policy, Carol Platt, CEO of the Osceola County Association of REALTORS®, Fla., has had to weather member-generated storms in her years as an AE. Fortunately, she has compiled a few tips that will help any AE survive his or her next challenge:
“Although a member may be engaging in personal attacks, choose to not react personally. One slip here and you have already lost. When you can ignore it do, but do not ignore what may escalate.”
“Treat every member the same and do not break rules or bend rules for anyone. The one that you benefited will always tell someone. People can disagree with you, but they will still respect you if you are fair to everyone.”
“Disruptive members will manipulate one staff member against another. Stop this from happening by being honest with staff and building a team atmosphere.”
“Do not allow bad behavior to take place in another language. Treat that member with respect and use an interpreter if you have to for honest discussions. Understand that cultural differences may include temperament differences but help members understand that they are part of the REALTOR® culture and some adjustments are needed.”
“While you may love your job, always be willing to walk out the door if you need to. Keep your résumé current and do not allow a member to personally degrade you, commit illegal acts, or mistreat staff. The job is really not worth it.”
“Take your vacation and sick time and take care of your health. It will keep you on your game.”
“Have a good set of policies (including a harassment policy) and procedures, and follow them. Ambiguity breeds discontent.”
“Front staff is instructed to bring any out-of-control members back to me or other senior staff to get them away from their audience. Most of the behaviors stop the minute this happens. I’ve taken the most profane and belligerent members into my office and calmly said that I will not treat them with disrespect, nor will I fail to serve them in the best manner possible. However, I have a responsibility to ensure that no member threatens or harasses staff or any other member. You can turn a member into your best friend because you were willing to show a little tough love.”
“Admit mistakes. I’ve found that saying ‘I apologize’ works better than saying ‘I’m sorry,’ it’s more formal.”
“Keep really good records. If you are charged by a member before a board and threatened with legal action, those records will save you and your staff. When an accusation was made in writing to the board, I responded with legal affidavits from myself and staff members and backed it up with data. I have instructed staff to keep exceptional records.”
“Have good AE resources to help you think through the tough times. Surround yourself with successful AEs as models.”
“Be careful not take the work stress of disruptive members home to your family. It will affect them, too, and strain your home relationships.”