We’re in the 18th week of our Cookingham Connection series today as we hear from Rick Usher. He is the assistant city manager for Kansas City, Missouri. Prior to that, he was the assistant to the city manager. Usher holds a B.S. in Construction Engineering Technology from Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, Louisiana.
” Always take the chip off the complainant’s shoulder before you let him go. This will be a hard task in some cases, but use every resource at your command to make friends out of potential enemies.
In my 29 years as a city employee, it has become clear that those in the community that act as if they have a chip on their shoulder are in this position because they feel slighted or alienated by not receiving attention that they are perceiving others may be getting at their expense. In these cases, I try to make an extra effort to understand the source of the person’s complaints and create some connection on common ground. In Kansas City, there are really only 2 degrees of separation between you and someone you know in common with someone else. So, building a relationship through shared connections goes a long way towards building trust, assures them that their needs are being heard, and that any necessary action will be taken to resolve their complaints.
Most importantly – avoid putting a chip there in the first place. Find out how it got there. Find out if your staff has inadvertently provoked an issue. I was once actually accused of creating a customer’s problems because I was so easily able to resolve them. Often times, by empowering staff to collaborate to solve problems, the City Manager’s Office staff is guaranteed to be the hero because our role is to act as community problem solvers and relationship builders. Empowering your staff to resolve issues at the service level is one of the most powerful ways of avoiding unnecessary conflict.
Oftentimes, the chip on someone’s shoulder is being carried based on a poor perception of government services rather than actual experience. In these cases, go where your colleagues are avoiding and use your networking connections to make sincere contact. Showing up is 90% of community engagement success. The rest is follow-through. Identifying local civic groups that meet regularly and attending their meetings periodically—even when there is no agenda item with your name on it—helps to build relationships that will stand through any crisis that may come. Essentially, good community relations are best built outside of a crisis.
Listen and empathize with the complainant and you will most often be able to find common ground. Most importantly, you must recognize their investment in your community. Whether they are residents, business owners, or visitors, all have recognized on some level the value of being part of your community and will often go above and beyond to make your community successful.
The Cookingham Connection blog series is published in partnership with Emerging Local Government Leaders (ELGL). ELGL members are local government leaders with a passion for connecting, communicating, and educating.