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How to Act When Under Attack

Dear Mary: 

After we refused a shareholder’s request to install a working fireplace in his unit, he’s been waging war against our co-op board. In a constant stream of social media posts and emails to other shareholders, he criticizes everything the board does — or doesn’t do. He lies about our actions and motives, accuses us of neglect and makes ugly personal attacks. As a board, we’re torn between ignoring him and setting the record straight each time he posts. We’re so stressed over this. Any tips? 

— Attacked in Astoria


Dear Attacked:

Of course you’re stressed. No one should have to tolerate this kind of behavior. It seems only right to hit back when you’re attacked unfairly, so it’s natural that some board members want to respond to each post and email. But you shouldn’t do that. Nor should you ignore the attacker. 

Why not? Because people will be wondering what’s going on. And if you don’t say anything, your attacker’s version of events will be the only one out there. Shareholders will have to guess at your version — and they will! It’s human nature to fill in the blanks to reduce uncertainty and create a story. They may also interpret your silence to mean that you can’t dispute the assertions. 


Then why not set the record straight each time? Because you’ll lose control of the situation. The attacker will be the puppeteer, controlling both the timing and content of your communication to shareholders. You’ll be on the defensive, and that will come across. You’ll risk getting embroiled in a flame war. That’s never productive, and you’ll have no graceful way to end it. 

So what should you do? 


First, talk to your attorney. This could be heading toward litigation — or toward dangerous behavior from the attacker. Now is the time to learn what legal remedies may be available to you and to ensure that anything you communicate to shareholders or anyone else will not put you at legal risk.


Second, make sure your house is in order. Do the attacker’s accusations include any truths among the lies and misrepresentations? Don’t give him any ammunition. 


Third, provide shareholders with an alternative narrative. Acknowledge that you’re aware they’ve been hearing from Mr. Attacker about board decisions and actions. As much as possible, however, do not repeat the specific lies or personal attacks. We know from social science that repeating false information — even to dispute it — makes it seem truer to people. (Horrifying — but now you know.) Instead, give the facts as you see them. State your version calmly and clearly. Do not attack the attacker. When you present a completely different version of events, shareholders will not be able to believe both what you say and what the attacker says. They’ll have to choose. You want them to choose your version, and how you present it is a big part of the battle. (So is your existing relationship with shareholders, which is a topic for a future column.) 


Fourth, give shareholders a way to ask you questions. Expect that they might want to know more. Even if they never take you up on it, you’ll get points for being available. (If you end up in litigation, talk to your attorney about what you should and shouldn’t share.)

Fifth, decide how you want to communicate with shareholders about this situation as it evolves. Just make sure you do so on your own schedule rather than dancing to the attacker’s tune. (And no social media!)


Stay calm, stay focused — and good luck.


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.

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