Ideally, board meetings proceed with respect and decorum, where directors discuss issues and provide direction in a civilized manner. In some condominium communities, the boardroom is treated more like a battlefield.
Condo business can only officially be conducted at duly constituted meetings, so it is there that directors may feel that they must choose their battles and stand their ground. (What’s the point of being on the board if directors are not going to express their opinions, or at least try to stop their condo corporation from making what they feel is a mistake?) Certainly, if there is any place that a director should speak up, it is not at the annual airing of grievances by owners (the annual general meeting) but rather in those monthly battles where business is transacted.
Conflict in the condo environment is bound to arise when many different people all live under one roof, each with their own take on what is logical and sensible. The differences Canadians celebrate may also give rise to the misunderstandings and assumptions that breed feelings of ill will.
At the board level, this is no different. Most condos have an odd number of directors for good reason. The very concept of boards operating as a ‘fourth level of government’ is based on democracy — not consensus or dictatorship. Everyone gets an equal vote and the majority rules.
The reality that board meetings present the time for directors to speak up and that directors are not always going to see eye to eye can give rise to stress and tension. In many ways, this stress and tension is similar to the anxiety people face as they prepare to take part in mediation.
When people know that they are going into a meeting with someone who is likely to disagree with them, it can make them anxious. Yet, just like in mediation, there are steps directors can take to ensure the meetings are productive and everyone feels comfortable:
Find common ground
When helping parties with opposing views, any mediator’s primary goal is to find common ground. Quarreling parties can most easily achieve progress by jointly focusing their attention on the same thing. For a condo board, this should be straightforward — the community comes first.
Set the tone by recognizing that everyone in the boardroom is putting the condo corporation (as a separate, legal entity) first. When directors share this common goal of advancing the best interests of their overall community, they put themselves in a better position to examine the different views everyone brings to the table. This framework can help foster a healthy environment for debating the merits of various options — even if a decision is ultimately made by a 3-2 vote.
Set healthy boundaries
Even in war, rules apply. Establish a common understanding of what they are and how alleged violations will be addressed. While directors will have their own opinions, an example of a healthy boundary may be to avoid personal attacks in the boardroom.
Address concerns about a perceived bully or intimidator outside of the heat of the moment — ideally, in front of it. Of course, everyone should agree on the rules beforehand for them to be effective.
Put process over position
People can often preserve relationships in the course of negotiations by focusing on interests instead of options. Directors on a divided condo board may find it helpful to step back from what they each think is the best position and first determine the best process for making the right choice for their community.
Consider strategies such as deferring to professional advice or circulating a request for proposal (RFP) to compare options in an “apples-to-apples” manner. If the board can establish objective criteria or a formula for making a decision, it can be easier to reach a difficult conclusion. What’s more, any dissenting directors who do not get their way will understand why.
Agree to disagree
There is rarely only one item on the agenda at a board meeting, and even rarer is the board that likes four-hour meetings. Discussion can be good; however, there must come a time when the board needs to make a decision and move on.
Agreeing to disagree, casting votes and proceeding to the next item of business can prevent directors from dwelling on conflict or harbouring ill will. If directors feel it necessary, they can ask that their concern be documented in the minutes, but again, it’s important to move on — there are other items that the board still needs to address for the community.
Directors can get themselves in trouble by violating the confidentiality of the boardroom setting — for example, by participating in gossip or spreading rumours within a community. When a board makes a decision, directors need to recognize that they are members of that board, whether they personally voted for or against a particular decision. Have open discussions and consider different perspectives in the boardroom; however, when the meeting is over, the board should speak with one voice.
Be a team player and stand by fellow directors. Strong boards are united and there is no better way to strengthen the team than to stand together in the face of adversity. Dissenting directors should support fellow directors when the majority votes against their own preferred course of action. Those fellow directors will be more likely to act in kind in the future, when their roles are reversed.
Being a condominium director is a challenging — and sometimes thankless — job. However, no condominium director is alone. If nothing else, directors have their fellow directors. Directors are not expected to always agree; in fact, they should expect fellow directors to bring different perspectives to the table. There are healthy approaches to split votes and ways to go about both making difficult decisions and moving on that promotes harmony and nurtures a condo’s sense of community.
Marc Bhalla leads the Condo Mediators team. He focuses his mediation practice on condominium conflict.