In the popular board game “Trouble,” players move colored pieces around a board, and when one player lands on a space already occupied by an opponent, the opponent’s piece is sent back to start (hence, the “trouble”). The object of the game is for each player to gather all their pieces into the final “home” spaces where they can elude the “trouble.”
Every association faces trouble in one form or another over the course of time. Some boards do a good job of preventing trouble, resulting in few occurrences, while other boards seem to constantly be battling trouble, both on their board and in their association. Similar to the board game, board members often get into “trouble” when they want to occupy the same metaphorical decision-making “space.” This article focuses on five best practices for preventing and resolving trouble in your association.
One of the top reasons for association trouble is an unbalanced board. Boards are typically comprised of three to five members holding various positions, representing a cross-section of the ownership. All board members are elected by the owners, and have an equal vote in decisions affecting the direction of the association, regardless of their position. Trouble starts when one member of the board tries to control all decisions on the board, also known as autocratic decision making. This manifests itself in many forms, including raising their voice, openly criticizing others, and possibly even making edicts instead of taking board votes. When this happens, decisions can become very one-sided and only represent the opinions and prejudices of that one member. This situation leads to board resignations, because their opinions are not valued. It also can lead to unhappy homeowners because their interests may not be adequately represented. Autocratic decision making can be addressed in several ways. First, try to talk it out. Partner with the other board members to address it with the strong member. If that doesn’t work, try changing the positions on the board. It is healthy to rotate the positions on the board to ensure a balanced approach to association decision making. If trouble still occurs within the group, utilize the annual election process to change the board membership. Any board member can solicit proxies from owners to help in making a shift in the makeup of the board. Having a balanced board makes for a happy community.
Another common source of trouble for associations is when homeowners are not treated equally. If imbalanced treatment of owners exists, it commonly appears in two areas; maintenance and collections. One of the worst forms of homeowner inequality is when board members are favored over homeowners. When no action is taken on board members for past due assessments or they receive repairs and upgrades before the rest of the homeowners, it deteriorates homeowner trust in the board. The same occurs when friends and neighbors of board members get preferential treatment over other homeowners. When someone joins the board, they must leave their personal agendas behind. They are entrusted to represent the homeowners equally. One way to ensure equal treatment is to adopt written policies voted on by the board. A successful written policy, when followed, should produce definitive results and ensure objectivity in the decision making process. A written collection policy is one common way to improve equality of collections. A written maintenance plan that includes rotation of buildings or units when starting projects is another way to improve equality in an association. Creating, following, and maintaining written policies ensures no single person benefits frequently over others and is one of the best approaches to maintaining equality in an association.
Running an association can expose board members to a broad range of personalities and emotional topics. By listening more and talking less, people will open up and communicate their concerns, and the board will earn their trust and respect. Always maintain a policy of calm and respectful discussion. Note items of concern and try to arrange them into groups to reduce the effort to resolve them. Being a board member requires thick skin and the ability to allow some emotional comments without striking back. In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff. With patience and persistence, the board will prevail in creating a positive and equal experience for both the board and the homeowners.
When problems occur in the community, resolve them quickly. Delays in board decision-making can lead to escalation of association problems. Maintenance issues can get worse and more costly, disputes can escalate turning discussions into lawsuits, and financial shortages can lead to the inability to pay bills. Maintain an action item list for issues raised at board meetings and begin tackling them the next day. Keeping action items in an electronic list helps with prioritizing and updating the list periodically. One way to help resolve action items quickly is to seek the advice of professionals. Utilize vendors as more than just service providers. The best service providers also work with boards as partners to help resolve their problems, even when there is no direct monetary benefit to them. So, whether it is a banker, lawyer, maintenance professional, or property manager, tap into the association’s professional network and get their advice. Many times, they will be able to help with additional options, and assist in eliminating options that don’t make sense. They may also be able to provide sources of professional education to help improve knowledge in weak areas.
Communication is another good way to prevent problems from happening or amplifying in an association. An important aspect of communication is transparency. It is important to ensure owners understand the problems being faced by the association. Holding board only workshops or making decisions outside of board meetings diminishes transparency and trust. In today’s busy work environment, owner participation in board meetings has been declining as well. Finding other ways to communicate with the community on activities, maintenance issues, and financial conditions – especially in ways that allow the homeowner to seek the information on their timeframe – is a positive move towards improving transparency. Newsletters, websites, email blasts, and mailings are all good ways to communicate with owners. Try to seek solutions to increase owner knowledge and involvement in order to create a more positive community experience.
When trouble starts brewing in an association, make sure the entire board is included in the decision-making process, treat everyone in the community equally, make listening a priority, address problems quickly, and communicate transparently to owners. If these five tips are followed, the level of trouble in the association should be kept to a minimum.
By: Dan Haumann, President