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The headaches of petty complaints

I don't envy Washington, DC, Mayor Adrian Fenty right now. As explained last week in the Washington Post, neighborhood groups in DC are embroiled in bitter arguments over the benefit or nuisance of speed bumps that have been installed. The level of outrage engendered by little mounds of pavement is a bit absurd, but leaders are often charged with minding such petty arguments among their stakeholders.

I'm sure most association managers can relate. As mayor, Fenty has more important things to worry about: fixing schools, reducing crime, battling the local AIDS epidemic, etc. As an association executive, you face challenges like finding new sources of revenue, keeping pace with changing technology, or fighting for your industry on Capitol Hill.

Yet, members get vocal about the selection of food at a meeting, word choice in a publication, or the deadline for an awards application. (Perhaps they even send you an email with a red "urgent" exclamation point!) Is your first reaction slap your forehead and say "Gimme a freakin' break!"?

My colleague Lisa Junker makes an insightful point, though: what might seem "inconsequential" to the CEO, who has to worry about the big picture, matters dearly to the individual member. This is a frustrating, eternal truth of leadership.

So what are the options? Roll up your sleeves and stick your hands in the dirty details of minor situations? Ignore them and hope they go away? Say a few words to create the appearance that you care, delegate the problem to the appropriate department, and then move on with other things?

Please use the comments as a therapists' couch. Blow off some steam and entertain us with a few of the petty situations you've had to deal with as an association manager, and then share how you've navigated them.

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Comments

Driving over speed bumps on a daily basis becomes a routine annoyance. Some of the more pressing issues you mention might only be encountered or experienced infrequently ... if ever.

When focusing on the big issues we hope to solve for the future, we have to be careful to not discount the present reality people experience right now.

For an association CEO, it's like being nipped to death by chihuahuas. It's not a dignified way to be bloodied, but it hurts nevertheless.

While no organization is perfect, I've always operated under the assumption that if we can't be relied upon to get the small things right, why should our members think us competent to get the big things right? The litany of little things -- everything from misspelled name badges to minor process deficiencies to small decisions that yield vocal negative feedback -- are the very things that can undermine confidence in a staff and CEO, for the very reason that those things ARE important to those members who are affected (or inadvertently slighted) by them.

As CEO, an important part of my job is to assure that staff systems and protocols and thought processes are in place to mitigate stupid or careless errors and to assure that other small decisions are at least well considered, both from practical and political perspectives.

Thanks Jeffrey and Scott.

@Scott, the thought of being attacked by a pack of chihuahuas is actually pretty terrifying (almost as terrifying as a pack of them dancing and singing).

Back to the topic at hand, though: you make a great point about establishing systems and protocols that should minimize the occurrence of small problems and mistakes. You're absolutely right, people notice the little stuff and the stuff that is most "local" to them, and they view that as a reflection of all else that the organization does.

I see a small but important difference between errors and decisions, though. A mistake like a misspelling has an obvious right answer and various methods for preventing its reoccurrence, but a decision between two options is often bound to please some people and displease others. I suppose the only system or process you can put in place is to examine all opinions and strive to help as many people as possible (and upset the fewest).

In Fenty's case with the speed bumps, I imagine he thought expediting the process for their approval and installation would please the vocal crowd who demanded them. When the people who opposed them started getting angry and vocal too, he must have felt like he just couldn't win.

My frustration is with what the volunteer may choose to see as important vs what may actually be important. I don't mind correcting a name badge or any minor detail. However, the same person who will send a four paragraph, high priority, single spaced email about their misspelled name is the same one who will not volunteer on a committee or write a letter to their Member of Congress on an issue of importance to the association. Care and attention to matters big and small isn't just the responsibility of staff. Volunteers need to care for both as well.

Wow - we have ALL been there, I'm pretty sure. We have one member who delights in demanding any new, young employee to answer the question, "I want you to tell me why I should be a member?" Depending on the recovery skills of the employee and which department they work in, the results can run the range of mortifying to hilarious. Unfortunately, the most common effect is an awkwardness that is difficult for anyone observing it to digest. I guess the positive is that it is the one answer every association employee should be able to answer...too bad that isn't part of the employee training process!

I think my favorite angsty member pet peeve goes something like this:

I've been a member of [insert your society's name] society for 50 years and of [insert competitor society's name] for 45 and I can't understand why you won't allow your VIP members to use your travel agents like [competitor society]. [Competitor society] allows this for ALL their VIPs and I NEVER have to book my own plane tickets.

Add the fact that neither society offers the service and stir.

Smile and be as polite as possible. It is what we do.

In the case of the DC neighborhoods, if you read through the article, the enimity and anger actually started years before the speed bumps, and before Fenty was elected; he inherited this problem, and did not have the informatoin or resources to be able to see the tension there before he took action--I would bet that the problems are much more related to urban sprawl, heavy traffic, and interpersonal/community relations in a changing demographic---all bigger problems than just the speed bumps.

This is an interesting topic and a great post and set of responses...maybe we need to find better processes and systems to utilize creative tension to dig deeper into what we are trying to accomplish or what the problems really are, and find opportunity in conflict---if people are unhappy about something, you've identified their pain or something their sensitive too; if you can solve their pain (even if you caused it lol), you can have a huge impact on that person...the best way to guaruntee a lifelong member is to take them from a very unhappy one, and flip them into one who sees the value of you and the association. Help them, not necessarily in solving the small problem they may be upset about, but using the conversation as an opportunity to know them better, maybe you can help them solve a bigger problem than this one...just my thoughts, thanks for the thought-provoking post!

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