‘Problem’ Board Members The Art of Working With Challenging People

There’s an old adage that goes along the lines of, “You can pick your friends, but you can’t pick your relatives.” That’s true of the people you serve with on your co-op or condo board. Board politics, like all politics, can get uncomfortable, or even downright ugly.  

Board members are chosen by the membership or ownership at large, and they’re generally chosen on the basis of expertise, seniority, and their ability to campaign – not necessarily on how well their personality or approach to leadership meshes with their fellow board members. Everyone comes to the table with their own opinions; that’s just human nature. But some board members and prospective board members come with their own agendas and personal baggage as well, and that’s where things can get dicey for their fellow community administrators. There are innumerable stories of board members plotting against each other like members of the court of the Medicis in Renaissance Florence. That’s one reason why, if you’re thinking of running for your board, it’s worth taking note of who you will be serving with, and making an honest self-appraisal as to whether you think you can work productively with them, and/or with those who are also running for a seat. 

Who Comes First?

When someone makes the decision to give of their time and energies for the benefit of the housing community they call home, it’s important that they do so for altruistic reasons.  In a well-run building with a responsible, dedicated board, everyone – including the board members – benefits.  Unfortunately, we live in an often less altruistic world.

Michael Davidson is the founder and owner of Board Coach, a private consulting firm in New York that advises nonprofit organizations on operations and efficiency.  One of his areas of expertise is helping nonprofit boards run smoothly.  “While co-op and condo boards represent nonprofit corporations and associations, they are, at their core, somewhat different from non-residential nonprofits,” he says, “because the board members are investors or owners in the nonprofit and their board positions carry a heavy fiduciary responsibility.”

Nonprofit board members generally undertake three duties, explains Davidson.  “They are the duty of care, duty of obedience, and the duty of loyalty.  The duty of loyalty has to do with conflicts of interest.  When a board member has a conflict of interest, they must recuse themselves from any decision-making vote affecting that issue.  The problem in co-ops and condos is that every decision the board makes affects the board members financially.  They can’t abide by the most basic fiduciary rule.”

“There are always instances where board members don’t get along,” says Cindy Petrenko, Owner of Complete Property Management in Vernon. “It creates a tense situation, [and] makes it very hard for a manager, because they get caught in the middle. At the same time, the manager has a job to do. The best thing is for the manager to focus on their job and not get involved.”

To address this tension, Davidson suggests that co-op and condo boards consider adopting a method common in nonprofit organizations, which is the board member agreement.  “A board member agreement is kind of like a rulebook, and lays out what’s acceptable behavior for board members.  “It should be in writing, and every new board member should be required to say they are prepared to agree to these rules,” says Davidson.

Michael Kim, a condominium attorney in Chicago, says that while board member agreements aren’t common among co-ops and condos in his particular area, he has occasionally seen them be adopted – usually in buildings or associations “when there are serious rival factions.” Kim does not necessarily encourage the use of such agreements, but he doesn’t discourage them either.  As part of his practice, he will offer his client communities an orientation session for newly-elected board members, including tutorials on how to run fair and orderly meetings. He says that bad blood between board members often has its origin in badly-run, chaotic meetings where board members feel shut down, slighted, or otherwise insulted by their colleagues. Adopting specific meeting protocols (and sticking to them) is one way to nip acrimony in the bud before it has a chance to flourish and cause harm. 

Good Behavior, Bad Behavior

Dana Greco, LCSW, a social worker and the owner of a co-op apartment in New York, has sat on the board of several co-ops over her lifetime. As a mental health professional specializing in family therapy, she says that much conflict can be resolved (or avoided entirely), simply by listening.  “Someone, usually the board president, has to take control of the situation, the group, and bring about group cohesion,” Greco says.  “The person doing this has to be gentle, because if there is someone who is difficult, they are probably very insecure.  Insecure people require high levels of acknowledgment.  They need to feel they’ve been heard.”

Greco says that while to date she has not personally experienced having to serve on a board with a particularly difficult or argumentative colleague, she stresses that the board president should try to handle the problem first when issues arise, or perhaps two other board members should meet with the challenging board member, always keeping in mind that hurt feelings should be listened to and their origins respected.  If that type of approach doesn’t work, the board can appeal as a unit to the managing agent to intervene, but that should be a last resort.

Davidson explains that in non-residential nonprofits, there is a grievance committee that performs an annual assessment of each board member.  “Sort of like a ‘how am I doing?’” he says. “The member meets privately with someone from the grievance committee every year to talk about their performance.”  Greco thinks that adopting such a system in residential communities is a good idea, and would support it in her co-op if it was proposed.

Allison Spitz, an attorney and co-op owner in Manhattan, served on the board of her East Side building for many years.  Her building doesn’t have a board member agreement, but she thinks they might be a good idea.  “They should include rules of courtesy,” she says.  Spitz also has mixed feelings on the use of Robert’s Rules of Order for board or building-wide meetings. While many management and organizational pros swear by Robert’s Rules  to keep meetings on-track and orderly, Spitz says, “They were developed for parliamentary debate and are far too complicated for co-op meetings.”

Constructive Criticism

Greco’s training as a therapist teaches her that when a person is difficult, there’s usually a reason. “They need validation, which is a basic human need,” she says. “When we serve on a board, we need to validate each other, and we do that by listening.  When someone feels they aren’t being heard, they’ll often act out.  We have to make each other feel heard. Listening skills include not being defensive or rude, not negating what the other person has said, and most importantly, if you don’t understand what that person is saying, telling them in an honest, welcoming tone.  Ask the other person how they feel and what that feels like.  Don’t listen with an agenda; [there should be] no criticism, no defensiveness. Any kind, patient, understanding person has these skills.”  

A Case in Point

After serving on his condominium board for six years, Kim, the Chicago attorney, needed a break.  A couple years after he stepped down, he was asked to return to the board by several sitting members because there was one very contrary and difficult board member making life extremely tough for the other members. Kim says he’d been able to moderate this issue in his previous role as board president, and agreed to run again and return to board service.  As board president, he employed many of the techniques Greco describes: letting every person have their say, and taking a zero-tolerance policy toward personal attacks. He was even-handed and didn’t let differences of opinion devolve into arguments.

A couple of years after Kim had rejoined the board, the person who had been so difficult moved out of the building, and left the board. The tone and tenor of the board had improved so much that the board member who had initially approached Kim about returning to the board, and who had been the primary rival of the difficult member, made a motion at a meeting to express appreciation for the service this formerly difficult member made to the building. Which just goes to show that even the archest of adversaries can often come to respect each other as peers and colleagues, united in a common goal. 

A.J Sidransky is a staff writer/reporter for The New Jersey Cooperator, and a published novelist. 

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