Competitiveness: When Rivalry Goes Too Far

April 1, 2003

Competition among salespeople is inevitable—indeed, there’s much to be said for an office in which many of the sales associates vie to top one another in performance. With their competitive juices flowing, associates focus on growing their business, spurred to reach ever-improving numbers.

But is it productive when competitiveness between two associates in your office turns into rivalry? The answer is yes, as long as the associates continue to channel their energy into improving their sales.

And that’s the rub. When rivalries turn destructive, they can jeopardize the health of your office. So stay on guard to keep rivalries from crossing the line.

When good rivalries go bad

What are the signs of an unproductive rivalry? In any organization, change often triggers unanticipated consequences. So keep a close eye on your sales team whenever a new associate comes on board, the performance of a current associate suddenly changes for the better or the worse, or new management or ownership takes the helm.

Even if there are no outward signs of change in your office, unhealthy rivalries could be brewing. Based on my own experiences both as a broker and as a sales coach and trainer and on my conversations with other brokers and executives in real estate, there are signals:

  • An associate begins to spread rumors about another associate.
  • An associate questions everything you’re doing for another associate or asks a lot of questions about another associate’s business, rather than asking about—or even talking to—the associate directly.
  • An associate begins to lobby staff and others for support against another associate.
  • An associate stops participating in meetings and events and avoids contact with others.
  • An associate suddenly becomes overprotective, using a desk lock and not sharing information.
  • Two associates start avoiding one another or make deprecating remarks about each other. Or, when they interact, sparks fly.

Follow a five-step action plan

How do you know when to intervene or even whether you ought to?

It’s time to take action when staff members and associates begin to express discomfort over tension in the office or start to take sides in a rivalry, creating cliques.

Once you choose to intervene, there are immediate steps you should take to keep the problem from spiraling out of control.

Step 1: Get facts, not gossip. Gather all the facts you can from each party and verify the facts to the greatest possible extent.

Step 2: Express your concerns and expectations. As quickly as possible, pull in the rivals one at a time for a meeting. Voice your concerns and listen like crazy. Take notes. In both meetings, counsel the associates to focus on their goals and business plans rather than one another. If written policies and procedures were violated, review the rules with the associates.

However, it may be just as likely that the violations are of unwritten rules—that is, rules of fair play, respect, and cooperation. In these cases, you can take similar steps. If you’ve been vocal and clear about the culture of your office, and these unwritten rules are commonly known and generally respected, remind the associates of them. If these types of unwritten rules are not widely known or followed, your job is tougher, and it’s time to lead the charge for creating a more constructive environment.

Going forward, consider putting the “unwritten rules” into writing. Even if you can’t make them hard and fast rules, you can describe your office culture in concept as being one that encourages fair play, respect, and cooperation.

Step 3: Suggest getting the two together for an open discussion. In the meeting, mention that you’ve had individual conversations with each and feel confident that both want to work toward a more positive relationship. Let them know that they’re both good salespeople who you want to keep, but you don’t want their rivalry to get in the way of their business or distract others in the office.

Step 4: Follow up within a few weeks. If the problem hasn’t abated, be clear that further violation or disrespect of the rules will result in an ultimate consequence. Here’s one way to reinforce your initial meeting:

“Joan, I’m excited about your work. You’re a good associate and have a great future in this business. But there’s a problem. Let’s take a look at our policy guidelines and talk about the unwritten protocols of our office. If the inappropriate behavior continues, I’ll have to make a decision that protects the health and integrity of the office. I want you here. I believe your career will reach its potential in our organization. But, if this unhealthy rivalry continues, be prepared to tell me what office you want to transfer your license to.”

Step 5: Remove the offender. If the rivalry continues to create a bad office environment for others, you have to determine who’s responsible and terminate the relationship.

Unhealthy rivalries can’t be left to fester. Management will quickly lose the respect and cooperation of its sales force.

How did we get to this point?

Is it possible to prevent or at least deter unhealthy office rivalries? Yes, and these techniques can help you do that.

  • Ensure that associates focus on specific business goals. This is the best way to prevent unhealthy sales rivalries. It takes leadership on your part to help associates set and work on agreed goals.
  • Communicate. The more you communicate with associates regarding their work, the more likely you can prevent unhealthy rivalries, quash rumors, and temper the hard feelings of those who feel threatened. If comfortable for you, shift your office culture from one in which you manage strictly as a supervisor to one in which you also manage as a coach.
  • Establish pride in fair play, professionalism, and integrity. Make professionalism a part of the language and content of your meetings, training, and counseling sessions. In addition to honoring your associates’ production levels, find reasons to honor them for other types of achievements, such as outstanding professional behavior, community service, marketing ideas, a tough situation handled well, or helping out another associate.
  • Make your company goals clear up front. During the recruiting and hiring process, establish the written and unwritten rules that encourage cooperation, fair play, and professionalism. Make clear what behavior is unacceptable.

Let staff, new and established, know that they are your eyes and ears for heading off any situation that might damage the productivity or harmony of the office. Also make it clear that you can be trusted to keep their confidence while you address any situation that they discuss with you.

Set boundaries. Strongly request that your managers, if you have any, and administrative staff refrain from socializing with the associates or behaving in a way that may lead to charges of favoritism. Train your staff to remain neutral in conflicts between associates and staff.

In the end, your job is to promote healthy competitiveness among your associates to help keep performance juices flowing. But you also must stay alert to prevent competition from degenerating into unproductive rivalries. By taking action quickly and forcefully, and by maintaining a professional environment, you can go a long way toward doing that.

Rich Levin, a licensed real estate broker, is president of Rich Levin Training & Coaching in Rochester, N.Y., and head of the coaching division at Mark Leader Courses in Toronto. Levin’s clients include real estate professionals from the United States and Canada.

CASE STUDY: The new kid on the block

Sometimes all it takes for competitiveness to turn sour is bringing a new associate into your office. That’s what happened in the case of two strong performers, Olivia and Samuel.

Olivia and Samuel competed strongly and amicably to be the top associate in their office. Each would watch the sales board to see how much the other had sold that month. The rivalry spurred them to try to exceed one another and raise themselves to higher levels of performance.

Then the manager hired Sue from a competitor. As Sue’s production began to approach Samuel’s and Olivia’s, Sue positioned herself as a rival, but not in a healthy way. She was often heard to dismiss the others’ success by positioning their production in an unfavorable light. “You know Olivia lives alone and doesn’t have anything else to do,” she would say, or, “Samuel’s mother is an attorney in town who feeds him all of his business.”

Even if these statements are true, the personal focus invites others in the office to take sides, straining feelings and releasing unproductive energy. That’s a recipe for an unhealthy rivalry that needs to be checked quickly.

What to do?

Take Sue aside for a chat to outline your expectations and re-emphasize office culture. Follow up with another meeting or meetings to assess her progress and show that you’re on top of the situation. Within a month, determine whether she’s your type of associate.

CASE STUDY: The rival next door

Rivalries aren’t confined within offices. With interoffice rivalries, finding a solution isn’t completely within your control. Unchecked, they may escalate into formal complaints and even litigation. As a broker or manager, you must address these cases on your side of the rivalry as best you can. That primarily means helping your associate stay focused on business, as in this case:

Beatrice was the top associate at a well-known local independent company, specializing in high-end homes. Then Dorothy began working as an associate for another company in the same market. She was so successful targeting the high end that she soon exceeded Beatrice as the No. 1 associate in the area. The two were continually up against one another for listings and buyers—and Dorothy often won.

The working relationship between the two began to suffer. Was it a coincidence that Beatrice didn’t receive many of Dorothy’s messages to show homes? Suddenly, offers on Beatrice’s listings had to be presented through Beatrice and Dorothy’s offers on Beatrice’s listings were outright rejected instead of countered. Dorothy began to think Beatrice was out to get her and rumors were flying that she was thinking of filing a formal complaint with the board.

As Beatrice’s broker, what whould you do? Call her into your office as soon as you’re aware of the situation. Listen, take notes, document any complaints she has about Dorothy, and be supportive. Gently refocus her back to appropriate goals.

As Dorothy’s broker, you should make a similar effort to call your associate aside, listen to her complaints, and be supportive. If she’s truly thinking of filing a complaint, ask her to take a day or two to consider her action. Mention that decisions based on emotion are often made in error. A day or two later, check her emotional temperature. If she hasn’t cooled down and is still considering lodging a formal complaint, discuss how much time and energy that’ll realistically require. Again help her maintain focus on her clients and business.

Regardless of which associate you supervise, it’s in your best interest to prevent the problem from escalating into a formal complaint or litigation. How do you prevent that?

  1. Call the other broker. Express your desire to solve the conflict as quickly and painlessly as possible. In most cases, the other broker will want the same outcome.
  2. Discuss with the broker what each associate believes transpired and what actions, if any, need to be taken to resolve the problem.
  3. If a cooperative resolution can’t be identified, involve a third party, such as your local association executive. Tell the executive what has transpired, and ask that the person intercede with the other broker. Intercession by a respected third party can often bring the situation to a satisfying close.

Rich Levin is a national real estate speaker and sales coach. His company, Rich Levin's Success Corps Inc., Rochester, N.Y., takes a "whole business approach" to coaching, focusing not only on essential sales skills such as presenting and prospecting, but also quality of life and personal finance. Contact Levin at 585-244-2700 or rich@richlevin.com.

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