Management Focus: Managing Board Conflict
By Jim Stoller, President-The Building Group
Association board members often disagree. As with any type of board, conflicts that escalate can interfere with the ability to function effectively. Just because people cannot agree on all issues, conflicts should never be allowed to get to the point where they stop critical decision making, adversely affect building systems or an owner's property values.
Not all conflict is bad. Airing disagreements is one way to get various viewpoints on the table, as well as, to examine issues that may otherwise be overlooked and to consider new ways of approaching problems.
However, when a disagreement turns into a major battle, the productiveness of a board can be destroyed. A conflict can develop to the point where board members become divided-into camps in which each side attempts not only to stop decision making, but to undermine the other side as well. Like a negative political campaign, the attacks often get personal and distort the real issues. Such a situation wastes the time and energy of the board. lt drives good board members to resign and discourages other unit owners from becoming involved for fear of getting caught in fruitless battles.
A quarrelsome board can also keep the management company from best serving the needs of the property. Consequently, when management encounters conflict, they must try to minimize it and continue to provide a high level of service. Creating an ahnosphere in which owners can reach a consensus is absolutely essential to the process of good management and the ultimate goal of maximizing property values.
Techniques to encourage a positive, productive environment include:
Goals and priorities
The first job when board members are at odds with each other is to agree upon a specific set of goals and priorities. Board members should list their goals for the association and then vote on them. If major projects are being planned, or board members want to ensure general support, the vote can include all association owners.
Never let conflicts get personal
It is easy to get carried away in moments of dispute and bring up personalities and irrelevant information. The more disciplined and business like discussions are at board meetings, the less likely they'Il dissolve into mudslinging about things that are beside the point. If the foyer needs redecorating, keep the discussion to budgets and timetables and choosing a committee, not commentary on who does or doesn't have good decorating taste
At board meetings, if personal attacks are made (The fire lane is always blocked by your old beater when you unload groceries!), the board president or management company representative must step in and steer the conversation back to the critical issue (The fire lane must always been kept clear for emergency vehicles.). If the parties cannot stick to the real topic at hand, the conversation should be ended. An excellent safeguard is to make all parties aware that personal attacks are not allowed and cannot be used at meetings or in any material distributed to owners.
Distribute accurate information
Never withhold data! Two great sources of contention within a group are ignorance and exclusion. If all board members, and under many circumstances, owners in general are not well informed about a specific matter, speculation and poor decision making can follow.
Furthermore, if any individual feels that they do not have access to the same information as others, they may get the impression that there is an inner group, which knows something that it does not want others to know. Worse, they may conclude that someone on the inside is getting a kick back for using a particular vendor or benefiting in other ways. Make complete and honest information available to everyone so that no one can claim that they have been excluded.
One way to encourage a genuine sense of collaboration between board members, unit owners and the management company is to create committees to investigate specific issues. For example, when a lobby needs to be redone, a committee can gather information on various designers and prices and present it to the board so that everyone has the same material when making a decision.
Bring in the experts
Board members are very often not qualified to evaluate many aspects of property management, be it selecting a new roof or replacing a boiler. It is therefore important to figure out when to bring in technical specialists, even though this may involve an added expense. Paying a consulting fee today cart often save much more money down the road if an engineer or accountant can provide useful guidance.
Many times I have heard a board member suggest replacing an old item with the identical product, not realizing that advances in technology often provide better and less expensive alternatives.
Case in point
A loft building had been poorly renovated several years earlier. The developer never properly finished the project and many items still needed attention when the first owners moved in. However, the initial boards and the first management company failed to tackle these problems, which eventually worsened to the point that the city cited the property for code violations.
The building suffered from the classic board dispute. A few members serving on the association board took it upon themselves to conduct their own investigation of the problems left behind by the developer. They put together their own repair budget and then submitted it to the rest of the board for approval.
Because the proposal was regarded as the work of only a few, other board members who had not been involved in the process disputed the needs and costs. Word got out to unit owners that one group was attempting to foist their plans on everyone, and the issue exploded throughout the building. At the next board election, the members who had worked hard on this proposal were voted off the board. Ironically, the proposal they had done was sensible and its recommendations ultimately were similar to those used later on.
It took close to a year after this fateful election to get the property back on track. First, management worked with the board to create both a needs list and a wish list. Management also brought in engineers to review all building systems. Big issues were broken down into smaller more manageable topics and committees were formed to explore various options. All items on these lists were priced and prioritized. A finance committee was also set up to make recommendations on loans or special assessments. Progress reports and other information were distributed, as they became available to every unit owner. Thus, no owner could claim they did not know what was happening at their property.
Since it was determined a special assessment was required lo pay for the work; all owners had to disclose if they were in the process of selling their unit. The Board asked unit owners to vote on priorities and later to approve the special assessment, which passed with little objection.
Making decisions and running an Association does not have to be stressful. Keep a clear set of goals that the board has agreed on, encourage all parties to get involved, or at least make information readily available, and never let issues get personal. While conflicts are inevitable, use them positively to create board and ownership consensus.