Strategies for Getting your Board Un-stuck

Here are some problems typically faced by condo boards, and some possible solutions.

The board is divided into two opposing cliques, with differing positions on every issue. Discussions get personal really quickly. We insult each other rather than discuss the problems in the building. There is a real lack of civility, and nothing gets done.

There is nothing wrong with board members holding different points of view. What is crucial, is how you discuss and debate the options before you. Even if you have not already agreed to keep things respectful, it is not too late to discuss how you wish to interact as a group and to commit to some ground rules.

When any disagreements arise, focus on problems, not on personalities. Keep the discussion related to the issues before you, and not on the personal qualities of the people involved. Your best strategy here is curiosity. Ask questions, and try to let go of assumptions you may have already formed. Try to understand why others hold the views that they do. Is the other party drawing on different sources of information? Do you have more fundamental disagreements, such as diverging opinions about the staff and the manager, or different views on what is most important in the building? Once these disagreements are on out in the open, it may be easier to discuss them effectively and eventually to move beyond them.

Given that groups of people will always have points of disagreement, how can you disagree in a respectful, productive manner? First, raise concerns about specific issues, not about the other person’s character or world view. Second, speak from your own perspective. Rather than say, “You are too stupid and short-sighted to understand the value of preventative maintenance;” try, “I am concerned that if we do not address this issue before the winter, we will have worse problems by the spring.”

Remember, you do not have to be friends with your fellow board members, just as you do not have to be friends with your co-workers. All you have to do is co-operate on a limited number of tasks.

The board members don’t trust one another.

We are used to thinking of “trust” as a personal quality. We feel that some people are worthy of our trust, while others are not. But this is only one way to think about trust. Another way of approaching trust is to see it embedded in rules, procedures and processes. When you drive down a busy street, what makes you “trust” that the other drivers will stay in their lanes, stop for red lights, and (for the most part) drive with regard for the safety of others? The other drivers are strangers, so it cannot be that you have personal feelings of trust towards them. Instead, you have to put your trust in traffic laws and in the fact that the laws are generally enforced.

The rules and charters of your condo corporation are similar to the rules of the road. Make sure that your policies, including your “Conflict of Interest” policy, are clearly written, and that all of the board members understand them. Make transparency the norm, so that documents such as receipts, bids, and contracts are available to all board members. There will always be specific individuals whom you may not trust, and others who may not trust you. If everyone puts their trust in procedures and policies, you should be able to work together effectively even if you lack confidence in one another.

What to do if one or more board members consistently flout or disregard the corporation’s policies and resist transparency? Condo boards sometimes control a great deal of money and, unfortunately, fraud may be a possibility. Consider consulting with the condominium lawyer.

The board members get along well. Meetings are very calm. There are no insults or harsh words. But there is also no lively discussion; no one asks questions or raises concerns. In fact, no one says much of anything….

Your board may be well-mannered, but is it truly efficient and effective? A board that seems harmonious and conflict-free might be as dysfunctional as the board that screams at one another. The most effective teams are not necessarily always in agreement. They may have intense discussions and disagree on any number of issues. The difference is that they focus on problems, and not on personal differences.

Keep in mind that boards are accountable to condo owners and are supposed to act in the owners’ best interests. Sometimes that might mean disagreeing with your fellow board members, raising concerns, and weighing the pros and cons of a number of different options. Remember that questioning the advice of the condo manager or board president is not a sign of disrespect or disloyalty. As long as you raise matters respectfully and refrain from personal attacks, bringing up legitimate concerns is part of being an effective and responsible board member.

The president dominates the board. No one stands up to him, and some board members are even afraid of him.

It would be nice to think that we were through with bullies when we left school playgrounds. Sadly, bullies can be any age and they are found in all walks of life. Bullies rely on others being too afraid or too craven to stand up for themselves and for others. If there is a bully on your board, you may have to tread very cautiously. When you raise concerns, be extra-careful not to let the discussion get personal. If someone gets personal with you, guide the conversation back to the issues under discussion.

Confronting a bully is hard, and you will have to decide yourself whether confrontation is the best strategy in your situation. We often focus on the costs and risks of acting, yet fail to consider the costs and risks of not acting. Avoiding a problem almost always contributes to its longevity. The longer you let others get away with bad behaviour, the harder it will be to call them on it in the end.

Finally, if you and your fellow board members are in conflict, think about what you might be doing yourself to contribute to the on-going poor dynamic. Have you formed assumptions about the other members? Do you fail to listen carefully, because you feel that you already know what they will say? Are you so convinced that your own views are correct that you refuse even to hear about other options? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, you have taken the first step in realizing that conflict is two-sided, and perhaps the first step in turning around a dysfunctional board.

If the challenges seem too great for the board to turn things around on their own, consider bringing in a mediator. Mediators are neutral third parties who are trained in conflict analysis and resolution. They can help facilitate and manage discussion so that all parties are heard, tensions are diffused, and the board can get back to making good decisions.