Sometimes, just getting two people to agree on what to have for dinner or what movie to see on a Saturday night can seem like an overwhelming task. Now imagine trying to get five, seven or nine people to make million-dollar decisions that can affect hundreds, even thousands, of people. That’s the challenge that faces co-op and condominium boards each and every day.
There’s an art to building consensus among disparate members of one co-op or condo community. After all, the people elected to the board may come from a different backgrounds and different circumstances. They may have conflicting views on money or vendors or even what color the lobby should be painted. Add to that the fact that some board members come to the table eager to make changes or perhaps pursue their own agendas, and the potential for disagreements becomes significant.
Working Toward Consensus
It takes hard work to create an environment conducive to open discussion and collegial debate, but with the right attitude and a willingness to listen, compromise and thinking about the big picture, board meetings can hum along smoothly.
“If one is trying to build consensus, the biggest challenge is that it takes time,” says Peter Glassman, executive director of Mediation Matters in Albany. “For some people, that can be frustrating and become what appears to be gridlock.”
Most successful boards require the right mix of personalities. “You need people with patience, an openness to having different views and a mutual understanding,” Glassman says. “First, seek to understand, and then to be understood.”
It also helps to make sure that no board member is confused or at sea about their purpose within the organization. “Successful boards understand what they’re there for,” says
Dr. Jasmine Martirossian, a Boston-based expert in group dynamics and strategic planning, says, “Boards have to be strategic. They should focus on what needs to be done and accomplished and let management take care of the 'how.'”
Those early preparations should include discussions of governance as well, says Myriam Laberge, MA, an International Association of Facilitators (IAF) certified professional facilitator with Vancouver’s Masterful Facilitation Institute. “As part of a board’s training, a couple of hours should be set aside to talk about what effective governance would look like,” she says. Boards should ask themselves, “If we were a highly successful board, what would we look like? What might support us in achieving what we want, and what might prevent us?” The discussion should not be driven by any one person. It should be a dialogue, she says. “Dialogues are conversations that help people learn together.”
Sometimes, though, a fractious board is simply the result of fractious personalities. “There are people who thrive on conflict,” Martirossian says. Not only does this make things uncomfortable for other board members, it also reduces the effectiveness of that individual.
“Some people get so difficult that even their good points get lost in a maelstrom of controversy.”
Glassman agrees. “Some people are conflict junkies. They are by their nature contrarian. And sometimes when we select people for the board, they may have the expertise, but they may not be group decision makers.” When that personality type finds its way into the group, “the group shouldn’t be shy” about discussing it with the person, Glassman says. “It’s worth approaching someone and saying, ‘maybe this role is not the role for you.’ In the long run, it saves everyone a lot of pain.”
Not All About Personalities
Curmudgeons and conflict junkies are not the only root causes of dissension in the board room, however. The size of the group can play a role as well in how well the unit functions, too. “The size of the group matters,” says Martirossian. “With five people, for example, it’s easier to reach agreement” than with nine or a dozen.
Sometimes, as counterintuitive as it sounds, boards can get off track or splinter because they get along too well. “Small groups have unique dynamics,” says Martirossian.
“They can become really friendly, and become so close and cozy that they feel uncomfortable challenging each other.” That can be the beginning of the end for planning and problem solving that makes a difference.
Stagnation can cause formerly effective groups to lose their way as well. “A lack of new blood can be a problem,” Glassman says. “If people have had a history of conflict, it can be hard to build trust again. It’s important to change dynamics, and think of the group as a living, breathing, organic entity.”
Getting the Job Done
No matter what started a given conflict, most people just want it to end. Thankfully, there are plenty of options for getting a group to start talking with each other rather than at each other. First, Glassman says, it’s important to remember that not all disagreements are unhealthy. “It’s easy in our field to say 'Let’s get this resolved,' but we’re all meant to have different views. You don’t have to resolve everything.”
That being said, the professionals agree that people must remember to listen to one another. It’s one important way to make sure people do not have to shout—metaphorically or literally—to be heard. “Managing conflict successfully is about listening,” Glassman says. “It’s about honoring people’s intentions and the opinions of others.” Good listening helps bring “more light than heat” to the conversation.
Bringing that clarity and light to the table means understanding the goals and attributes of the discussion. “It’s important to focus on the issues rather than personalizing it,”
Martirossian says. “Make decisions in an informed way.”
Laberge agrees. “Under any problem, there is a root cause,” she says. “Sometimes people ascribe ill intent to what people are saying when really there are good intentions underneath. Don’t assume people are coming from a place of ill intent. Be hard on the issues, be soft on people.”
Making decisions can be easier for a large group if the choices are whittled down, perhaps through committee discussions ahead of major votes or through fact-finding efforts before details are presented. That helps avoid the old trap of “whoever talks the loudest, gets heard” habits that can form when one dominant personality takes hold of a meeting. “A single opinion rising without alternative can be disruptive,” says Martirossian. “And it’s disruptive to look at a large number of perspectives. Try just looking at three alternatives.”
Avoiding dissension also entails flexibility, especially when it comes to decision-making. Martirossian has seen groups that falter because they have trouble changing or seeing things differently when new facts or issues arise. “It’s important to make a decision but not be so married to the idea that it can’t be changed,” she says.
It can help boards to remember Martirossian’s earlier observation that groups that are focused are more successful. That’s why she recommends having a strategic plan that looks at the building’s priorities. Creating one should involve the whole board, which generates full buy-in and helps set the group’s overall agenda for two or three years. That doesn't mean it's cast in stone, however — the board should still revisit the plan each year. “Given the rapidly-changing environment [they work in], they have to look at it regularly,” Martirossian says. “You have to be agile enough to respond to imperatives. But having a consistency of purpose really focuses the group and can make all the difference.”
Turning to Outside Help
If, despite their best efforts, boards still end up spending most of their time battling conflict rather than solving problems, they can turn to outside help. Professional facilitators can bring a fresh, outside perspective to the matters at hand and help group participants solve problems without taking sides.
“The facilitator will say, 'Hold on, let’s make sure everyone gets what’s being said,'” says Glassman. “Some folks come by the listening piece naturally—but for others, it goes almost against their grain. Some people are willing to work hard to change, though.”
He cites the example of one man who trained himself to pinch his palm whenever he felt the urge to argue, and ultimately trained himself to not be as argumentative or defensive.
Having a convener who seems neutral running a meeting can help tone down defensiveness and divisiveness as well. Glassman cites one group he has worked with that has had enormous success as community advocates working with the police to improve service.
It also helps if the person running the meeting—and actually, everyone involved in the meeting, understands that there are two basic personality types when it comes to group discussions. “There are those who are spontaneous thinkers, who can think on their feet or who formulate their answers by talking things through,” says Laberge. “And there are reflective thinkers, who like to gather their thoughts and won’t speak right off the bat.”
The pressure on co-op and condo board members can be enormous. They have been given the responsibility of caring for their home and for the homes of their neighbors and friends.
They are dealing with multi-million dollar budgets that include rising costs and shrinking revenues. And that’s all in addition to their day jobs and family life. They are volunteers in what can feel like a full-time profession. It’s no wonder, then, that conflict can arise, disagreements can ensue and group dynamics can fracture. With the right intentions, an ability to listen and a willingness to set personal matters aside, though, boards can become places where great ideas— and not great arguments—take shape.
Liz Lent is a freelance writer, teacher and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.