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Conveying Constructive Comments: Volunteer Governance and Member Behavior

In every private club, members play an active and influential role in how the club is governed. The by-laws and departmental rules in place establish parameters for acceptable club behavior, and traditions are then established. Members have joined the club with immense pride and may decide to serve on a committee or even stand for election to the board. Either way, we consider all members equal and expect to hear an opinion from every single one at some point in time.

Many of us are involved in managing member feedback, and we want an open communication method between members and leaders.  Compliments are wonderful.  And complaints are inevitable.

There has been much written and discussed about how to deal with legitimate member complaints. The NCA “Model Club Rules” from the Club Director Reference Series is an excellent resource in that regard.  However, it may be equally beneficial to address the method of feedback, the member/responsibility before the act of complaining, and the impact on employee relations and retention. 

Constructive or Negative Feedback

If a service or product is not meeting members’ expectations, or, more importantly, the club’s standards, leaders want to know immediately. But, how a member decides to deliver the message, and to whom, is equally important and is a reflection of the club’s character and policies.

Constructive feedback is the backbone of any organization. If delivered verbally and respectfully to the right individuals, a member earns an enormous amount of respect from his peers and club employees. Many times feedback requires immediate attention. And if a member takes the time to understand the circumstances and write a letter, then club leadership should be prompt in addressing the issue and responding.

No matter how strong the opinion, a member who does not fully understand club policies and practices and either verbally, or in writing, makes statements based on personal bias, is at risk of undermining his/her credibility and potentially demoralizing staff and workplace morale—neither of which are productive. One must think first, and then act appropriately.

An Example 

The Grounds Superintendents and their staff are some of the most skilled professionals in our industry.  Their expertise stretches the limits of environmental stewardship, landscape design, technology and equipment management, financial oversight and, of course, turf grass management, to name just a few.  They rise early, brave the elements and manage some of the most beautiful green space in the country.

However, despite their efforts, the weather has a significant impact on turf quality, as do budgets and manpower, aggressive golf programming, tree management and on and on. Behind the scenes, there is a Greens Committee with volunteers who meet and discuss policy with one goal in mind: To provide the best product that will meet the club’s needs. This staff/member collaboration illustrates an effective private club governance system at work.

And then the complaint.

A member is upset with the speed of the greens today. He cannot understand why they are not as good as the neighboring course and voices his opinion in front of other members and staff. In fact, he goes as far as to say the Grounds Superintendent is not that good and should be replaced.  (By the way, this could easily be a restaurant, golf, tennis or pool complaint.)

A complaint such as this shows disregard for committee members as well as staff who are trying their best to achieve the desired standards established by the club. But, more importantly, it is a direct attack on an employee who deserves respect and courtesy.  If a member is not satisfied with some aspect of the club or its workforce and it rises to the level of a complaint, members should understand how, when, and where to deliver their feedback to avoid individual attacks on employees and to ensure that constructive feedback is used in an appropriate manner.

Member Responsibility 

Constructive feedback and most forms of complaints are welcome. Members can help to protect the club’s integrity and professional employment environment by taking the following steps to keep relations cordial and positive between members and staff:

  1. Club leaders should ensure all members understand the process for member suggestions and complaints, recognizing that just as constructive feedback can help improve the club, negative comments can injure staff morale.  Proactive training should include educating club volunteers, chairmen, committee members and new members on club rules, as well as keeping all members informed on governance practices and club operations.
  2. Club leaders should help shield staff from accusations and complaints by directing feedback about staff to the club’s general manager. When something appears awry, avoiding individual attacks on staff members and reporting concerns to the general manager should help to facilitate addressing circumstances that might warrant action.  Also, members who take the time to learn why budgets, staffing and programs exist at current levels and direct their comments and suggestions in a positive manner—respectful of the staff and member volunteers who work tirelessly together—do far more for morale than can be imagined.
  3. Club leaders should remind members to read all communication from the club and from available industry journals and to be informed before being critical. All too often we find that the club publication, say the monthly bulletin, is not read.  Keeping members informed about the club is an important aspect of club operations and the more advance communication we can establish the better. A club’s Web site is an excellent place for member resources, as well as related links to association and industry information.

It is a privilege to be a member of a private club. The entrance fees and dues exist at a level that governors determine will provide the service and quality required to attract and retain members. However, some members have an unfortunate sense of entitlement or unrealistic expectations that can be misdirected toward staff rather than channeled through a clear and proper system. Taking these steps will help ensure you are fostering an open-communication environment for both members and staff.

Loyal to the End

Fostering a club environment of open communication and mutual respect among members and staff will only reinforce the loyalty and longevity of those who serve at your club. Loyalty from your club employees depends in part on a strong, positive interaction between members and staff, which you can help facilitate.

Remember, the most loyal and committed employees of any private club have a tendency to go “above and beyond” to meet members’ needs, and they’re highly motivated to work to the best of their ability. Loyal employees also tend to stay at jobs longer, resist competitive offers from other clubs, don’t actively look for other employment, and recommend the club to others as a great place to work.

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