Conflict Management in Your Association

In the busy-ness of day to day work, once in awhile I get a chance to reflect on what is causing all of this busy-ness. It seems that the last several years have, unfortunately, brought out much conflict in the operations of community associations, resulting in contentious board meetings and annual meetings, as well as disputes between associations and their members and owner to owner disputes. The Foundation for Community Association Research, a national 501(c)(3) organization devoted to common interest community research, development and scholarship recently published a paper by Courtney L. Feldscher, a Ph.D. Candidate at Boston University addressing managing conflict in community associations.

Ms. Feldscher’s paper is somewhat technical, and written in a way that was not easily understood (imagine that, coming from a lawyer!), but her conclusions were nevertheless interesting. Her paper was based on a survey of operations of a number of community associations in the Greater-Boston area. Her conclusions are not at all surprising to anybody who has worked in this industry for any length of time, but she supports her conclusions with empirical data, as opposed to the anecdotal evidence that most of the rest of us draw our conclusions from. Interestingly, based on the data obtained, one of Ms. Feldscher’s conclusions is that conflict often occurs due to the lack of opportunity or ability to communicate effectively. Of her survey results, significantly high percentages of associations reporting no instances of conflict in the previous 12 months also reported that they disclosed, or made available, board minutes and financial information to the community. In addition, the decision to charge a special assessment is a strong predictor of conflict.

Apparently there are three primary conflict management strategies: avoidance (pretending the conflict doesn’t exist), conquest (“my way or the highway”), and procedural resolution. You can guess which is the most effective over time. The latter strategy, procedural resolution, is the most effective for community associations because it emphasizes (1) the recognition of differences; (2) an analysis of the context in which the differences exist; (3) improving communication practices; (4) negotiation; and (5) compromise.

Ms. Feldscher suggests that the key to preventing or minimizing conflict is three-fold: (1) first, the community must establish by consensus the mission and goals of the community and be in democratic agreement about the values and interests of the community; (2) the board must establish itself as serving the interests of the consensus (and members must believe the board is acting wholly within the best and agreed upon interests of the community while being reasonable and fair in its decision-making process); and (3) the board must establish an effective and transparent communication system.

We write regularly on this site about these specific topics, under the general category of “governance.” Of the three keys that Ms. Feldscher discusses, it seems to me the most difficult for the board to control is the first – establishing by consensus the mission and goals of the community. The mission and goals of the community are often embodied in the governing documents which may contain mission and goals from when they were first written many years ago, and which may be difficult to change. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile re-visiting the governing documents from time to time to determine whether they truly do reflect the mission and goals of the community – are the use restrictions still applicable, or should they be modified to reflect the current desires of the community? Has the board been following the provisions of the governing documents even though they seem outdated, impractical, or inconsistent with good business practices? Has the board been following what would ordinarily be considered good business practices, even though such practices are inconsistent with the governing documents? The answers to these questions may lead to the conclusion that the board needs to consider undertaking amendments to the governing documents to reflect the reality of the current desires and needs of the community. While this process is not generally easy, if done properly, it may pay rewards in operation and governance of the association for many years to come.