September 2011 – You’ve had a contentious battle, and the losing side is still smarting. Are there ways you can rebuild relationships with people who feel angry, left out, or just frustrated they didn’t get their way? Here, we offer tips on bringing angry owners back from the opposition.
When Members Are Miffed
“I’ve seen this on a number of occasions,” says Duane McPherson, president of the western region and Dallas⁄Ft. Worth divisions of RealManage, an association management firm that oversees properties in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Louisiana, Nevada, and Texas.
When it’s not just owners but the board that has still–smarting members, McPherson suggest a sit–down. “The best thing to do is to have a meeting to get everything aired out and to get everyone to understand what others are thinking,” he says. “You can’t heal a community unless you heal a board first. And if you can’t heal a rift in the board, there’s nothing else you can do.”
McPherson calls these planning meetings, and he tells board members the idea is to plan for the association’s future. “In that meeting, you address the dissention, the issues that happened, and look for common ground and long–term goals everybody wants,” he says. “You can say, ‘Everybody wants a financially healthy association.’ That’s a broad goal, and we can get buy–in for that.
“You also have to address the areas where board members didn’t agree,” adds McPherson. “So you have to air the dirty laundry. Until you do that, you can’t get people’s feelings to heal. The idea is to pull them together in a common direction, get everybody to air their comments, and try to work together. I’ve seen this work on a number of occasions, but you have to be patient. You may not be able to get everybody to buy in, but most people will come around.”
In future meetings and discussions, make those whose feelings are bruised feel like they’re heard. “Let those people speak so they don’t feel like they’re being cut off,” says Robert White, managing director of KW Property Management & Consulting in Miami, which oversees about 125 associations totaling 30,000–35,000 units.
Also consider asking the “losers” to participate in association governance. “Maybe someone has an issue with excess expenditures on landscaping,” says Nathaniel Abbate Jr., a partner at Makower Abbate & Associates PLLC in Farmington Hills, Mich., who represents associations. “Invite the losing side to join the committee or make recommendations so they may feel like while they may have lost the battle, they haven’t lost the whole war. They might think, ‘I was probably wise to raise some opposition. I haven’t prevailed, but at least my voice is being heard, and I can change things that way.”
Finally, think about whether apologies are in order. “An apology fits in a lot of places, but you have to be careful not to set a precedent,” says Abbate. “If you’re going to raise assessments, and under your governing documents that’s at the board’s sole discretion, it’s not a bad idea to have an informational meeting to let people know what’s coming up and maybe even taking an informational vote. But that could look like you’re abandoning the board’s authority.”
“So couch your apology in an, ‘We could have’ form,” suggests Abbate. “You might say, ‘Even though this was within the board’s sole discretion, in retrospect it would have been better to get everybody’s input. Rest assured, it was an oversight, and future decisions will be handled in a more considerate manner.'”
Rethink Future Tactics
People may still be frustrated because of your approach. Rethink how you handled this contentious issue to learn from it. “I’ve been giving this a lot of thought over the last several years,” says Abbate. “I’ve been doing association work for about a dozen years. When I knew when we were right, I’d play right into the strong faction of the association, and it was pretty much a scorched earth policy. I realize now you have to go into things with an exit strategy because people have to live with each other.”
Abbate now suggests a more tempered approach. “The question is, ‘How can I have the soon–to–be–sure–losers save face?'” he explains. “One ways is to divorce the process from board members who are hotheads or who have personal vendettas. Most board members appreciate their fiduciary duties and don’t lord them over the association. But there are people who—when you get into a battle over something that needs to be taken care of and is a legitimate gripe—you find out have an axe to grind and the power to grind it. When that rears its head, it’s probably smart for them to back off.”
“So maybe there’s someone who’s violating the bylaws, and he’s a particular target of certain board members,” says Abbate. “Maybe we just meet with a couple of other board members, a representative sampling, and not have the personal vendettas out in the open.”
Not Everybody Will Come Around
Despite your efforts, you may not be able to mend all fences. “These types of problems are difficult to get beyond,” says Matthew Zifrony, who advises homeowners and condo associations at Tripp Scott, a Ft. Lauderdale law firm, and who’s also served as the president of a 3,000–home association. “For some reason, people really take personally their roles in the association and the board. When it hits the point where there’s infighting, in a lot of instances the wounds take a lot of time to heal.”
“The best way is by trying to get the people you’ve had the fights with to be involved in the community—to be a part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” Zifrony adds. “That could be setting up a committee you can have them on or reaching out and offering to meet with them outside the board setting. The idea is that as much as there have been fights in the past, you’re trying to move forward.”
There’s a big “but” to Zifrony’s suggestions. “I’ve found that if there are problems again in the future, people go back to fighting,” says Zifrony. “All it takes is another flare up, and you’re right back where you were. That doesn’t happen in all cases. I’ve seen many, many instances where people were battling, and over time they end up working very well together. But that’s the exception to the rule.”
“So unfortunately, you may be able to set aside personal feelings for the time being, but the fingers are still on the chalkboard, so to speak,” concludes Zifrony. “You can stay away from the chalkboard. But if you happen to walk by, it’s like the fingers are scraping down the chalkboard again. The book answer is to be kind and work with these people. But that’s not always the real answer.”
Matt Humphrey is president of the Alameda, California-based HOAleader.com, from which this article was adapted.