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It is a hazard of anyone actively involved in the management or governance of a strata community that they must deal with lunatics on occasion.

A strata manager who does not burden themselves with an ability to access email on their phone may experience a sense of dread at having to open their email for the first time on a Monday morning.  Their inbox may be littered with complaints, abuse or just trivial information from “that owner”.

The word lunatic is derived from the Latin word for the moon: luna. Humans have believed for many centuries that the moon caused madness. This belief stays with us – we regularly joke about it being a “full moon tonight” when referring to how we or others might behave.  Unfortunately, the moon’s cycle does not always explain away or excuse the behaviour of some in strata communities.

Here are examples of what came across my desk in just one month:

  • A body corporate was threatened with a claim for “maximum damages” because of distress caused to an owner’s dog when a by-law contravention notice was sent about that owner keeping an unapproved pet in the unit. That dog subsequently defecated in the building’s lift.
  • An owner proudly proclaimed that they were the only resident willing to yell at a charity worker who entered the scheme land without invitation. They expressed their disappointment that one of their neighbours encouraged this charity worker by making a donation.
  • An owner applied for an interim order to stop a balustrade refurbishment project from going ahead because it would cause increased greenhouse gas emissions.

The prevalence of paranoid personality disorder has been estimated to be as high as 4.4% of the population. In a 100 lot strata scheme, there’s a good chance that at least one of them is occupied by someone who bears the characteristics of this disorder:

  • A belief, without sound basis, that others are exploiting, deceiving or harming them – many defenses to levy recovery actions are driven by this.
  • Unforgiving and holding grudges indefinitely – they will bring up how they were treated at that general meeting three years ago to justify today’s behaviour.
  • An inability to see their role in problems or conflicts – they are always right, and everything they do is justified because of their suspicions.
  • Stalking and excessive litigation.

Closer to home is a slightly more prevalent personality disorder: the narcissist. About 5% of the population suffers from narcissistic personality disorder. It is characterised by:

  • An inflated sense of importance and entitlement to special treatment.
  • Fantasising about power, success, intelligence, and beauty.
  • Exaggerating their achievements and abilities, and always seeking praise, recognition and attention.
  • Hypersensitive to criticism.
  • Anger if their orders are not complied with.
  • A lack of empathy or awareness of others.

Narcissists are drawn to positions of power. The prospect of someone else holding dominion over them is intolerable. They will often be the chairperson or “captain” of the committee – or causing significant disruption on their path to take that position.

There isn’t enough being said or taught about these issues in the strata industry.

The core features of every strata community are buildings, money and people. The strata industry is very well supported with:

  • Knowledge about buildings – how to identify and deal with leaks, address building defects, take out appropriate insurance, and implement maintenance programs.
  • Funds management – raising and collecting levies, budgeting, spending control and audits.

Strata managers are now being rebranded as relationship managers. Some of the most successful strata managers are extroverts who know the names of the kids of each committee member, have a comforting presence at meetings, and build rapport with key decision-makers.

Those are admirable skills for a strata manager dealing with well-adjusted human beings.  But the wings of the most consummate social butterfly can be clipped by the weight of receiving a dozen negative e-mails every day over a three-month period from one person from one scheme in a large portfolio.

We have acquired the collective wisdom that 90% of a strata professional’s time can be dominated by 10% of their clients. Sometimes that 10% are going through serious problems with their building or finances. But often the problem is the people, or at least the people exacerbate the problem with the building or finances.

The key themes for the strata management industry for the last few years have been burn-out, talent drain and a lack of available (or willing) talent.

Strata managers aren’t alone – I see very similar features arise in committee members. They are giving up time with their family, business / job, friends and hobbies to instead volunteer to be a committee member. The few that are willing to volunteer their time can get beaten down by the problems they have to tackle.

There is a large prevalence of defects in buildings, and economic conditions are causing more financial pressure on strata communities. But these problems can be outsourced to service providers or managed internally. Many strata management companies and committees have someone they can call on to diagnose and solve the problem with the building or the finances. But the industry is lacking the same sophisticated response to problems with dealing with people.

This is an industry wide issue. Yes, strata managers must deal with the unending emails and phone calls, or sudden appearances at reception to demand a search of the records or complain to the boss about their directions not being followed promptly. But committee members, building managers and other residents must live with these people, share the elevator with them, suffer confrontations in the car park, or be subject to their dominating ways in committee meetings.

When a strata manager or their committee runs into a problem they wish to transfer to me, they sometimes get confused when I ask them to stop telling about what they perceive to be the problem, and to start telling me about the person at the center of the dispute: their traits, communication style, lifestyle and background.

It’s very difficult, if not impossible, to reform the narcissist or cure the paranoid. But there are people out there who can:

  • Identify this behaviour and assure a strata manager, committee member or building manager that they aren’t incompetent or the cause of the problem.
  • Provide strategies to effectively manage the disruption caused by these personality disorders.

Strata communities fall into a state of despair when they run into problems and out of ideas on how to solve them.  If the problem is a personality, perhaps it’s time to look further abroad for coping mechanisms and solutions.

There is a gap in the strata industry in training in, or awareness of, psychology. The competitive advantage to be taken up is the development of capabilities to help deal with difficult personalities.

This article was contributed by Jason Carlson Partner, Grace Lawyers

The Queensland team of Grace Lawyers was recognised as Australasia’s leading service provider to the strata industry when they were awarded the 2022-2023 SCA Australasia Strata Services Business Award Winner in June 2023.

SCA is the peak industry body for the strata sector.  This award was drawn from the wide pool of suppliers of all types of services across the industry, such as legal, insurance, property maintenance, engineering, utilities, other professional services, technology, etc.  The size of Australia’s strata services economy in 2021 was estimated to be more than $7.5 billion.  We are proud to have received this special recognition in such a large and diverse services industry.

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  1. Mark

    Not sure if you’re a lawyer you’re qualified to diagnose someone with a personality disorder and this article can be quite damaging to someone genuinely experiencing troubles in their life, labelling them with a personality disorder.
    Also what do you do if its the people on the body corp or building managers who display the behaviors you have detailed?

  2. Brian

    Very interesting article and after ten years as chairperson can relate to some of these comments about people and strata issues in a community living environment.

  3. Clare Lyon

    Wow. This describes our chairman exactly a narcissist. Our problem is he usually also holds a majority of the votes as he owns a lot of apartments in our building. To compound matters a hotel holds the majority of votes. The only time we out voted him he persuaded the hotel to vote with him. We fight on !!

  4. Margaret

    Omg you must be talking about our Body corp .. one committee member locked his common property entry .. put in a sprinkler system on the only common green space outside his town house and told people not to walk across this lawn or kept children playing on it because it would ‘damage’ the grass.He has taken over the mowing of this ‘common property’ ( on the week end)
    He cleans his neighbours driveways and enters peoples space under their balconies . He has told us to do maintenance on the outside of our balcony where a fault has appeared on 90% of the properties.

    He cannot listen to anyone and berates people behind their backs if they go ahainst him.
    Other people have recognized his mental problems but no one seems to stand up to him.

    We spend our life trying to avoid him 😅

  5. Mannly Dubroy

    Well written article. Well researched. Thank you Jason.
    I was a high school Guidance Officer/Counsellor at a high school for 20 years. From my experiences with students and their parents. I agree with most of your comments. I was fortunate to most often get along with ‘dysfuntional/disordered’ individuals thanks to my education and life experiences from my own dysfuntional family. Some tips for the staff: Try hard not to meet more than two parents at the same time or you maybe ganged up on or bullied? Listen to the dysfunctional person but if you feel they have got you at a bad time, do not be afraid to say, can we make an appointment I am on my way to a meeting. Or, if you are willing to sit down for a meeting (set an hour time limit) listen to their idiocy, then we usually explain the policies, then even agree a little with the dysfunctional person in front of you which helps to disarm their attack on the system and rules that they do not like. Professional development for your staff on how to deal with such encounters. If someone is assaulted? How to avoid aggressive confrontations? When is the time to call police? How to avoid negligence by staff. There is a magic statement that saves staff and the corporations if litigated. If it went to litigation, when a lawyer asks, did you try to stop the dysfunctional from their idiocy? Our response is; I explained to the person, what they are doing is dangerous and wrong and give an example of what might happen( ie; fall and break arm?). Then the staff member asks the idiot/dysfunctional person to not do that anymore and walk away. Walk away from dysfunctional individuals with them in your periphery for safety reasons. And report or make notes asap regarding the incident.

  6. Judy

    Interesting Article but we have an owner who is causing enormous problems in our complex and we don’t know what to do about it. I was hoping the article may have given us an idea.

  7. Lucy

    Fantastic article Jason!!! The first strata article I have that I have seen that doesn’t just address these types of people as ‘difficult’ people’. As an ex-Strata Manager, I have had my challenges over the past 20 years attempting reason with the same people for years who have ‘unpredictable and often verbally abusive personality disorders relying on skills that just develop regardless over time out of necessity.

    As you say, there are no tools or training provided managing relationships with people displaying personality disorders. Afterall, a psychologist trains for years in preparation but, alas it’s a skill that is just expected of a Strata Manager however compromising on the managers own mental health that may be. In fear of losing the building a huge amount of time and energy is usually spent pampering to these narcissist demanding relationships and Ironically, encouraging the bad behaviour, instead of discouraging it.

  8. Harry Roberts

    It goes without saying it is impossible for a chairperson or Secretary of a complex to please everyone irrespective of what is being proposed is in the best interest of the complex and or lot owners’ but when asking the owner or owners to submit their suggestions for consideration “nothing happens”. Some New incoming lot owners who claim they know everything about unit living and bodies corporate are generally the worst offenders. when it comes down to common sense thinking let alone having the ability to put forward suggestions that may or may not be in the best interest of all concerned. Recognising the amount of personal time freely given by chairpersons and or Secretaries of a complex by some lot owners is extremely rare.

  9. Sylvia Dewar

    Excellent Jason.
    We had a chairperson for a while who aptly fits this description.
    Not sure where these people are coming from, but I guess with more people on the planet there’s bound to be an increase in these kinds of personalities.
    It hard meeting them in life and extra hard if they have become a family member. As you say: “they are never wrong”, even to the extent that they will deprive their kids of joy just for their own selfish ends.
    But you cannot give them any help (nothing ‘wrong’ with them), they have got to recognise their problem and want change …. an almost impossible ‘hope’!
    All the best Jason … a very insightful article.