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Managing Board Conflict How to Maintain Harmony

Mediate and legal mediation business concept as a businessman or person separating two boxing glove opposing competitors as an arbitration success symbol for finding common interests to lawfully solve a conflict.

Preventing any and all interpersonal conflict is impossible. But in the context of a condo or HOA board, minimizing and mitigating the problem is essential in order for that board to do its job. Those who volunteer to serve on their board are likely to bring strong convictions—and personalities—to the table. As in any decision-making body, there are likely to be differences of opinion—and while healthy, respectful debate is often a good thing, if the stakes and tempers rise high enough, things can escalate to a point where it becomes unproductive at best—and possibly even dangerous at worst.  

If the past year-and-a-half of belligerence, friction, and general bad behavior has taught us anything, it’s that board members should actively anticipate arguments among their ranks, and have a strategy on hand to ease tensions and reach an acceptable compromise—before things get out of hand.

Talk it Out

One way to keep things copacetic among board members is to identify the attributes that make for a functional governing body, and reach for those as a baseline when things start to drift apart.

One such attribute is simple civility. “I think that the key to harmony on a board is that its members have the ability to agree to disagree,” says Tina Straits, vice president and general manager of Baum Property Management in Aurora, Illinois. “No group of people is going to reach a consensus on every issue. Where there is disagreement, it is vitally important that board members listen respectfully to each other and understand that having a difference of opinion is nothing to take personally.”

Good communication—and the ability to calmly articulate why one board member may disagree with one or other persons—is another critical ingredient. “Some disputes are caused by a lack of understanding among board members as to the regulation and operation of the association and the function of the board, which can be due to the inexperience of some of the directors,” explains Elizabeth A. Bowen, a shareholder with Florida-based law firm Siegfried Rivera. “To this end, a good management company with the ability to effectively communicate with a board regarding the needs of the association is important.

“Truth be told,” Bowen continues, “some board members assume their position with aspirations of control and world domination—even if that world only consists of the association. Those board members are potentially the most difficult personalities to incorporate into what should be a ‘team.’ It is important for board members to remember that their function is to effectuate the administration and governance of the association pursuant to their best business judgement. Sometimes that purpose gets lost if directors come with personal agendas. Many times, an association’s general counsel can act as an experienced ‘voice of reason’ and assist the board in attempting to move through its difficulties to keep the corporation moving forward.”

“In a harmonious board, members are genuinely committed to either supporting or opposing matters that come to them, based on whether or not those matters are in the best interests of the building and its residents,” adds attorney Michael E. Fleiss, a partner at Schwartz Sladkus Reich Greenberg Atlas, LLP, a law firm in New York City. “Also, the members are free of hardline or absolutist positions when it comes to the building and building-related issues. For example, instead of insisting that maintenance or common charges must never be increased, or that the lobby must be renovated before any other project is undertaken, they’re willing to adjust if necessary to best address the conditions and situations with which they are presented. This does not necessarily mean abandoning wholesale the positions they espoused when running for the board, or their deeply-held views about how best to manage the building. But it does mean being open to consider a variety of possible options.

“Finally,” Fleiss continues, “effective board members respect the views of experts regarding matters within those experts’ fields. Few board members—even long-serving ones—can master every detail of the many subjects they must deal with. That’s why boards retain architects, accountants, lawyers, and managing agents, and why successful boards have different members with construction, financial, and legal backgrounds. Harmonious boards give appropriate weight to the expert opinions of their members and of the professionals they hire.”

Fighting toward Consensus

While some minor conflicts can be allowed to simply blow over, some intra-board friction can escalate, or become entrenched to the point that it’s unlikely to resolve itself without some kind of intervention. In these instances, members who find themselves outside the conflict—or even third parties, such as a manager or legal counsel—may need to insert themselves into the melee in order to guide it to a reasonable solution.

“Occasionally, board members can’t see the big picture due to their perception of certain people, and will be unable to make rational decisions,” adds Edie Davis, senior property manager with Maine Properties in Portland, Maine. “On the rare occasion that a vote reaches a stalemate, I have had mediators come in to resolve conflicts.”

It’s important to handle matters internally before they spill out and create issues among the broader association. “Generally, there is an odd number of members on a board so that when a vote needs to be taken, the board can move forward,” without being stuck with a tied vote, notes Robin B. Steiner, president of RMR Residential Realty, LLC, in Elmsford, New York. “But, while it shouldn’t happen, sometimes the losing side of a vote will express their disdain for the decision to the community at large, and all of a sudden gossip is circulating at breakneck speed.”

Sometimes, an individual owner runs for a vacant position on a board specifically because they have a problem with how the current board is doing things. Even before running, this person may have made inflammatory statements toward the board, which can lead to tensions, should that person get elected. 

“Often, this is the type of person who is quite active on social media, and fancies themselves the lone messiah on the board,” says Barbara Holland, a regional manager with FirstService Residential in Las Vegas. “Managers need to be proactive in recognizing personalities in order to deal with these scenarios. We have so many responsibilities—you immediately think about the law and finance and maintenance and insurance—but juggling personalities is also a big one. When you have that first meeting, one of the things you need to discuss with everyone is relationships, and how the board should go about doing business with one another. You need to help them create goals, an objective, and a mission statement that they can advance as a cohesive unit. It’s okay to disagree, but you want to ensure that they do so in a professional manner. Many associations have a code of ethics, and part of that code dictates these relationships.”

“Serving on a dysfunctional board is exhausting for the members who may well opt to resign rather than continue to ‘fight the fight,’” says Davis. “That level of dysfunction also typically leads to increased expenses for the association, as board members may have more cause for requesting legal opinions to support or offset arguments among themselves. Occasionally, when there is a bad actor on a board who is causing so much difficulty that it interferes with the function of the association, there may be a political effort waged to have that member recalled by membership through a statutory process. If the board is split by faction, it will be up to the political savvy of willing directors to form coalitions of support in order to get things done by majority.”

The Third-Party Solution

Key to communication is listening. And if board members are not listening to each other, bringing in a neutral party may help to open their ears. “When board members are diametrically opposed, it may be time to call in a professional from a field related to the argument at hand,” advises Straits. “Even if that professional is saying the same thing as a particular board member, the others may be more open to hearing the message if articulated by an experienced outsider.

“And,” Straits continues, “many arguments come down to the individual communication styles of specific board members. It can be helpful for each member to reiterate what they ‘heard’ another member say, as it can be surprising to hear members repeat what they thought they had just heard. If differing members can realize their differences in communication styles, it can help push through and resolve issues. But, at certain times, there is no resolution that is satisfactory to everyone. When that happens, the board members need to understand that it is their fiduciary responsibility to support the decision of the majority.”

While mediation can occasionally be helpful in placating feuding residents, it’s rarely useful in the board context, according to Fleiss. “Formal mediation by an independent third-party facilitator may even result in agreement purely for the sake of agreeing; that is, an agreement that is not necessarily in the best interests of the building and its residents. Plus, formal mediation typically involves financial costs—including to compensate the mediator—which boards may be hesitant to incur. But informal ‘mediation’ by fellow board members, relevant professionals—architects, accountants, attorneys, for example—or managing agents can assist in arriving at a bipartisan solution to an issue on which certain board members are in disagreement. 

“In some circumstances,” Fleiss continues, “such ‘mediation’ may involve little more than other board members discussing an issue with two diametrically opposed colleagues at a meeting of the board, using the available information—including expert recommendations—to try and bring the views of those disagreeing members closer together. In other circumstances, the relevant professionals may try to bridge gaps between board members’ positions by answering questions and discussing options regarding the matter at issue. Where the other board members or the expert cannot or will not ‘mediate’ a resolution between two stridently opposed board members in this manner, it often falls to the managing agent to do so.”

Mike Odenthal is a frequent contributor to CooperatorNews. 

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