I know it’s a shock, but, there’s a lot of conflict in community management. Some of the most difficult, from a manager’s point of view, is that which arises between Board members. That conflict can be very stressful, particularly when the members try to drag the manager in to their internal spats.  Truth be told, when it comes to  Board member conflict there are only a few places the manager can, or should,  be proactive in resolving it.   The vast majority of Board conflict is  not only rife with danger for the average manager, but irresolvable by them anyway.

First, let’s identify why the Board conflict arises. It’s important to understand the roots of that conflict, because it will help you determine if it’s something you can help resolve, or something you can only manage. Here are some of the most common sources of conflict within a Board:

1. Don’t understand their role
2. Lack of information
3. Politics
4. Personalities
5. Competing agendas
6. Need for attention
7. Poor communication skills
8. Mental illness (seriously)
9. Just a jerk

The question remains:  What conflict should you see coming and assist in resolving, which  should you avoid and which can you only manage?

Conflict you should see coming (and you can help resolve)

1) They don’t understand their role.  Most folks have no idea what is in store for them when they join a Board of Directors; and they sure don’t know what is expected of them and why unless someone provides that information. It’s either going to be the manager, or a veteran member of the Board. If the Board is savvy, they will require that some sort of Board Orientation take place every year, right after the Election of Directors.  Orientation gives everyone some knowledge of how the Boards operate, how the chain of command works and which office does what. Is it appropriate for the Treasurer to instruct the manager on agenda format?  Not likely. Can a member-at-large instruct the landscape company on the right way to mow the lawn? Very unlikely. But if they don’t know that, they may have serious frustration when others don’t follow their orders, or they are told (after the fact) it’s not their job.

Conflict arises when Board members are unclear on their role within the Board. This is something which not only should you see coming, but your office should have a solid standardized plan to head it off in the form of Board orientation, complete with packets containing generally helpful and necessary information.

2) Lack of information.   Most people get on a Board one of two ways: They were coerced by a neighbor (It’s only an hour a month!) or they have an agenda. That agenda usually takes the form of some sort of financial reform, as in, “We are spending too much on maintenance, we are being ripped off.”  Barring numbers 3-9 above, the new Board member is simply lacking information with regard to maintenance and is a conflict accident waiting to happen.  As the manager, this is right in your bailiwick: You are the provider and purveyor of information for all things association, providing information early, often and with a smile.  Give him the invoices, the reserve study, the contracts – everything pertaining to maintenance that would give them the information they need to either see that everything is on the up and up or take their (well-informed) concerns to the Board as a whole.  Good managers can see these guys coming a mile away, so there’s no excuse not to address the uninformed Board member and their concerns right up front and avoid the conflict that will be inevitable otherwise.

These are likely the only two scenarios where the manager can actually mitigate conflict. Referring back to our list above and the conflict that arises between Board members due to their personalities, competing agendas, the need for attention, et al:  These types of issues are usually irresolvable due to their personal nature; thus you have to manage the conflict and the stress that conflict induces on a long-term basis.
When I say “manage the conflict” I don’t mean  that you go out and start directing board traffic; to the contrary, this is about managing your reaction, regardless of the cause of the irresolvable conflict. By taking this tack, you manage your mental health, your job, and the account around the conflict.

Short-term conflict (non) management

Short-term political conflicts usually consist of issues that Board members can easily resolve themselves quickly because the issue is negotiable and the members accommodating. For example, two members of the Board may put their name in for the office of President. The vote is close, but Mark wins out over Kellie. Kellie is visibly upset, and lets the Board know that she is very unhappy with the election results. Mark,  immediately nominates her to become Vice President, which is  a livable solution for him. Mark negotiated with Kellie by throwing his support behind her for the # 2 slot. By accepting the office of VP, Kellie is a part of that negotiation. The Board accommodated the needs of Kellie and accepted the negotiation made by Mark on their behalf. The Board moves forward. The manager sat quietly, observing and avoiding the conflict.

If you know the conflict is a short-term blip in the life of the Board, it’s often best to sit quietly, and let it play out. There are very few, if any, times managers need to insert themselves in conflict such as the scenario described above.

Managing conflict for the long-term

Long-term conflict between Board members is not an unusual thing in community management; in fact, there is some argument that it is the norm.  If you have 8 accounts, chances are there will be inter-Board conflict in at least three of them. If you are going to survive and manage within those environments, there are some key things to remember:

Remain impartial. As much as you may want to, as much as you know one of them is right and other not, never, ever, take sides.  You can be somewhat sympathetic to the conflict, but good naturedly resist being dragged in to it and on one side or the other. Taking sides in any conflict where you are the expendable person (i.e., you are an employee) has danger written all over.

Listen attentively – but not too long. This goes under the dual headings of not getting dragged into the conflict and practicing good time management. When the parties to conflict call you or drop in your office to complain about the other person (and they will), listen politely and attentively, but always find a reason to cut it short. Take a call or stand up, shake hands and thank them for coming (the universal sign for ‘get out of my office.’) Listening for too long not only wastes time but can give the party involved the impression that you are sympathetic to their cause and thus on their side.

If they are persistent in dragging you in to the conflict,firmly but politely decline the invitation to this disaster-in-waiting). What to say? Think the language of politics and diplomacy (or, stone-rubbing and incense): “I see both points of view, and I like both of you, so I am hopeful you can work things out and we can move forward together. I have no opinion on this matter.” Always remember, it’s their community and their life, not yours. Don’t confuse your care for the course of the association for caring about individual agendas.

Rarefied air:  Use a professional mediator.If your community has a big budget (and are big thinkers), you may very well have the luxury of being able to suggest the use of a professional mediator to assist in managing or resolving conflicts within the Board.   If disputes seem irresolvable, this is a great way to go: A third party continually involved that isn’t free and isn’t you. Excellent.

Keep your executive informed. If you work for a management firm, always keep your executive informed of long term conflict, preferably in writing (email). Executives can only help you if they are informed about ongoing conflict within the account. The good news is they may be able to assist in mediating conflict that you cannot or should not, as they are viewed as a neutral party.

Are you the cause of the conflict? Not getting jobs done on time? Didn’t notify homeowners of an upcoming project? Calling in sick too much?  Take sides in another conflict and now that position has come home to roost?  If you are the source, or perceived to be the source of conflict find some way to extricate yourself from it by examining why you are the source and changing your style of management or  your behavior with regard to the issue. Or, go to your executive and ask for help and be honest about your involvement. You may need to be taken off the account to save it.  Again, you are the expendable party and when it comes down to you or someone who lives there… You will lose.

The Bottom Line

What’s your job? To keep the account for your company and to manage it in a professional manner. These two points are all that matter. The daily conflicts or the long-term conflicts between Board members is just a part of human nature and, as a result, a part of your job. The interplay of board politics and personalities do make our work very interesting. Know that resolving conflict is only some times within your abilities or your purview, and is not your fault that it exists (or, better not be). For the most part you need to manage around Board conflict as best you can by remaining impartial and resisting every effort they make to drag you in to it. And don’t forget to let your boss know what’s going on.

Remember: It’s their life and their community.Conflicts will come and Board members will, eventually, move on. We are the professional administrators and our goal is to go the distance with the community and out companies. To do that, we need to avoid the mine fields wherever we can, inserting ourselves only when it’s appropriate and will have a positive outcome on our career, our company and the community.

Adamen Inc © 2011 All rights reserved.

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