The PGA Professional's Pandemic Challenge

The PGA Professional's Pandemic Challenge

This article was written by Bruce J. Crowley, Managing Director of Frieda Partners. Crowley is a behavioral scientist and executive coach who has worked with many of the nation’s top clubs and select PGA Section offices. Learn more about him here or reach him by email at bruce.crowley@friedapartners.com.

Every golf professional is evaluated daily on how well he/she delivers relaxed high-end service.  And doing so requires the rest of the operating team: instruction, assistants, outside service to follow suit.  The clubs delivering on the promise best have figured out how to engineer a culture of self-directed and engaged employees united around the shared purpose of attentive service accommodation plus.  This purpose is anchored in one of the sacred pillars of service: adapting to say “yes” to member and guest requests.  

The pandemic has been disrupting and disorienting to PGA Professionals, their staff, and the industry.  In addition to mandating new practices for enforcing safety, social distancing and sanitizing decrees, perhaps the most difficult imposition on Professionals has been an obligation to say “no” to customary service amenities.  For the first time, rather than looking for a way to say yes, and following-up with additional value-add enhancements, Professionals and their staff are now duty-bound to say “no”.  And the first no is often followed by a second as members seek a work-around to gain the favor he/she desires. 

This is a sea change of perspective.  It imposes additional levels of emotional stress and pressure on those who tend the game’s experience.  You’re likely wondering: how do I manage this short-term change without damaging relationships longer-term?  The challenge is particularly confounding for younger Professionals tasked with enforcing pandemic-related dictates and service constraints to those two, three or four generations removed. 

And as May rolls into June, Professionals report experiencing more pressure about amenity disruption presenting additional challenges.  More questions and subtle suggestions such as: well the club down the street has implemented additional allowances, why can’t we?   And most Professionals report having two types of members: those fully compliant and cautious; and, a separate population less concerned and more assertive pushing for return to the full-service experience they’re accustomed.  

Here are a few suggestions.  Saying “no” is difficult for most people.  For many, it’s rooted in fear of damaging a relationship because the “no” typically feels synonymous with confrontation.  Confrontation generally puts people in conflict.  This is particularly tricky in our service business where so much of the experience is anchored in personal connection.  And intensified by the sense that most of the country is more on edge now, so feelings can be easily bruised and reactions raw.

As you look to manage the short-term, don’t view saying “no” as a binary choice between confrontation and preserving a relationship.  There is a middle option known as the “neutral no.”  If you get pushback, keep these points in mind: 1) stay on topic; 2) stick with it; and, 3) use your emotional connection to explain that the rules are for everyone’s benefit and safety.   By sticking with a neutral no, you’re concentrating on the business imperative of no, not the personal.  If this is confusing, consider this: it’s best to aim for a referee’s kind of neutral demeanor, for a referee is required to make a ruling and stick with it when challenged.  

Here are characteristics which frame the neutral no.  A neutral no is steady, uninflected with tone, and clear.  It is mostly notable for what it is not: harsh, combative, apologetic, reluctant or overly nice.

For instance, one of my top clients experienced the following.  He worked with his board to arrive at a comprehensive set of rules to open up for golf.  Upon completion, an email was sent to the entire membership at 5:15 PM on April 30, within two hours he had three requests for work-arounds, none of which were ultimately permitted and notably there was no dissent within the board.  Here is a case where there was no bending.  They adopted a neutral “referee tone” and stuck with it.  No reported negative impact on the relationships.  And members at this club are similarly not accustomed to hearing “no.” 

Another opened for play in mid-April with a limit of one golfer per electric cart: 15 carts total.  Given the cart sanitizing mandate and club-imposed support staff furlough, a limit of 15 carts per day, one golfer per cart, was established.  Priority was given to members with physical hardships making it impossible to walk the course.  Immediately, requests for work-arounds began to flood this Professional’s email.  Here’s an example of more “personal” pleas inducing additional emotional conflict.   In this case, limited exceptions were made while sticking to policy. 

Finally, the golf-shop no return policy.  A member purchases two sizes of the same shirt and seeks to return one through an assistant.  The lead assistant sticks with the policy; the member persists, trying to pick off a more pliant junior assistant on the staff, yet he too sticks with it despite mounting pressure.  Head Professional is brought into the information loop.   As the member appears for his next round; head professional approaches and after exchanging pleasantries and game-related conversation, brings up the return and neutralizes the issue on the spot:  “I imagine you tried both of the shirts on and want to return the one that doesn’t fit?  You realize, if you do, another member is going to try the same shirt on?   Do you really want to do that?  The policy is for your safety and everyone else’s”. 

My observations and quantitative findings affirm that Professionals best equipped to lead in this uncertain time have deeper levels of social and emotional intelligence.  Specifically, they’ve developed more acute self-awareness and an ability to regulate emotions under the moment’s stress and pressure.  Add empathy, the ability to actively listen, and social adaptability and you have a leader (and staff) well-equipped to balance the COVID-19 tactical imperatives with a frontline ability to adapt on-the-fly to navigate the short term.  These teams improvise with competence, and care and stick with the clear neutral no, uninflected by any combative hint or overly apologetic tone. 

Something to gain in this time of loss.