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This article was written by Julie Adamen, President of Adamen Inc. Adamen Inc. is a consulting, education and employment firm specializing in the community management industry, and a valued Innovia Co-op partner helping members with industry specialized training and recruiting services.  

Managing Board conflict

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. Some you can help, but the vast majority of Board conflict is not only rife with danger for the average manager, but can’t be solved by them anyway.

Conflict you should see coming (and can help resolve)

Board members don’t understand their role(s). 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, unless someone provides that information. It’s either going to be the manager, a veteran member of the Board, or both. If the Board is savvy, they will require some sort of Board Orientation take place every year, right after the Election of Directors. Orientation gives everyone some knowledge of how the Board operates, how the chain of command works and which office does what.

Lack of information. As the manager, this is right in your wheelhouse: You are the purveyor and provider of information for all things association, communicating early, often and with a smile. Give those Board members the information they need to be comfortable with their role (and yours). 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.

The above are likely the only scenarios where the manager can actually mitigate conflict. The other sources of conflict that arise between Board members due to personalities, competing agendas, the need for attention, etc., are issues usually unsolvable due to their personal nature; thus, the only thing you can manage is the stress that conflict induces on a short- and long-term basis. By taking this tack, you manage your mental health, your job, and the account around the conflict.

Short-term conflict management

Short-term political conflicts usually consist of issues that Board members can resolve themselves 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 very unhappy with the election results. Mark immediately nominates her to become Vice President, negotiating with Kellie by throwing his support behind her for the # 2 slot. She accepts and is a party to the negotiation. The Board votes Kellie in, accepting the negotiation and moves forward. The manager did an “excellent” job of sitting this one out, and letting the situation play out.

Managing long-term Board conflict

Long-term conflict between Board members is simply a fact of life. If you are going to survive and manage within these environments, here are some key things to remember:

Remain impartial. You can be empathetic to the conflict, but resist – with a smile – being dragged in to it. Taking sides in any conflict where you are the expendable person (i.e., you are an employee) has danger written all over it.

Listen attentively – but not too long. When the parties to conflict call you or drop by your office to complain about the other person (and they will), listen politely and attentively, but always find a reason to cut it short. Listening for too long not only wastes time but can give 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.”

Rarefied air: Use a professional mediator. If your community has the budget for occasional experts (and the Board members are big thinkers), this is a great way to go: An impartial third party, skilled in dispute resolution, that isn’t free and isn’t you. Excellent.

Are you the cause of the conflict? If you are the source, or perceived to be the source, of conflict, examine why that is and change your behavior with regard to the issue. Or, go to your executive and ask for help and be honest about your involvement. Sometimes, your relationship with a community has simply run its course.

Should a manager become involved in conflict? Anytime a Board member knowingly or unknowingly poses a risk to themselves or the association, the manager should attempt to inform the that member, and the Board, of the risks. This can be dicey on a good day and dangerous on a bad day. Provide the information in a professional and unbiased manner and allow the Board to come to their own conclusions.

So, what’s your job?

(1) To keep the account for your company and (2) to manage it in a professional manner. These two points are all that matter. The daily conflicts, or long-term conflicts, between Board members are 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. 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.

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 job is to go the distance with the community and for companies. To do that, we need to avoid the mine fields wherever we can and insert ourselves only when it’s appropriate and when odds are it will have a positive outcome for all involved.

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