Employee Rivalry: Five Tips for Managing Dueling Staffers

By Barbara Jaurequi

Child psychiatrist David Levy introduced the term sibling rivalry in 1941. Self-explanatory in its terminology, the concept of sibling rivalry is easy to grasp. The mechanism of employee rivalry works essentially the same way, with the employees in a competitive relationship, striving for greater approval from their employer or manager. Employee rivalry is common in call centers, where ambitious agents vie for a limited number of advancement opportunities.

Many managers, in a desperate attempt to be perceived as fair, find themselves going crazy as they try to distribute praise evenly and acknowledge hard work equally. Moreover, when they deliver criticism to one employee, they feel compelled to deliver it to the other, whether he or she deserves it or not, so they aren’t accused of playing favorites.

Employees who are constantly trying to outdo each other don’t always deliver superior work because of their competition. In fact, the animosity they feel towards one another can stifle their creativity and cause them to deliberately undermine their opponent’s efforts. Furthermore, the tension between them can corrupt the attitudes of other employees and cause managers to lose objectivity regarding the rivalry.

Managers who recognize troublesome rivalries between two or more valuable staff members should seek to resolve these rivalries before they upset otherwise harmonious workplaces. The following is a list of tips that are easy to enact. Consistent application of these suggestions is likely to eliminate or lessen the negative impact of employee rivalries.

1) Collect Data: Managers should be alert when milling among their staff. Observe the two contentious staff members as they interact with each other. Notice attitudes, body language, and temperament. Pay close attention to the things that trigger negativity. Write down your observations. See if you can identify patterns of behavior. The important thing is for managers to recognize the symptoms of the problem such as arguing, gossiping, and tattling on each other.

Total resolution of employee rivalry may not be possible in certain circumstances; that’s when symptom management becomes the goal. Effective management of the symptoms of employee rivalry can significantly improve an otherwise hostile work environment for everyone concerned.

2) Be Willing to Separate Employees to Reduce Tension: This is a good way for managers to solve their rivalry problems with minimal managerial exertion. Consider, for example, that some personalities are strong and, while not offensive to the majority of coworkers, may grate on the nerves of other employees. It is often like this with dueling employees; they just don’t like each other.

Their dislike for one another causes them to be overly observant about what the other is doing or not doing. They are too aware of the other’s responsibilities, deficiencies, and positive qualities, which are usually deeply resented. Even the most brilliant conflict resolution specialist would not be able to overcome this sort of interpersonal problem, because the problem is based on personality, and personality traits are enduring aspects of the self. They don’t change. Therefore, managers’ willingness to move people around could help reduce the kind of tension that leads to declines in productivity and employee morale. It may also reduce the number of tattletale sessions managers have to endure.

3) Know Your Limits: Managers need to decide how much energy they should spend on the problem of employee rivalry. If it has become a major disruption in the call center, managers should address the problem with a plan for resolution in mind. On the other hand, if conflict resolution meetings are nothing more than fodder for drama loving gossipers, a simple, private discussion with each of the involved employees would be a better way to go. Specifically, don’t make a big deal out of a small matter that might correct itself over time, but don’t ignore a spreading cancer either.

4) Don’t Strive for Perfect Fairness: Managers should not expect themselves to be perfectly fair, as per the opinions of conflicting employees. Rather, managers should strive to treat their employees impartially. For example, if you decide one employee should be given an extra week to complete a particular project for whatever reason you deem worthy of the extension, then do so. But, be prepared to do the same for the other employee if that employee needs extra time. However, don’t automatically extend the other employee’s deadline whether it’s needed or not just to be fair.

Make your decisions on a case-by-case basis. If one employee comes to you complaining about unfairness, simply tell the employee he or she does not have, nor is he or she privy to, all the information that went into your decision. Stick to your guns. Be unemotional, calm, deliberate, and firm. Managers should not explain certain decisions, or they will open themselves up to an inappropriate debate with a subordinate.

5) Conduct an Honest Self-Appraisal of Favoritism: It is important for managers to be aware of how their behaviors and attitudes may be perceived by those they supervise. It’s only natural for managers to have preferences when it comes to personalities and work habits. You may have a particular affinity for an employee who has, for example, a similar sense of humor as yours. Unintentionally, you may be favoring that person to a degree that is obvious and offensive to your favored employee’s rival.

Consider if your preference for one employee over another is based on personality or is that employee truly superior in terms of quality of work? If the former fuels your favoritism, it would be wise to check it. Better for you to make some behavioral changes than lose a valuable employee who legitimately views your management style as inequitable.

One final thought about conflict resolution; do some research about best practices before launching into a process with which you are unfamiliar. Better yet, get some hands on direction about how to proceed. Any money spent for training will be a good investment. Don’t be blindsided by new cases of employee rivalry; you are sure to encounter them as long as you manage people.

Barbara Jaurequi, a licensed marriage and family therapist and nationally certified master addiction counselor, speaks on a variety of personal and professional topics and is the author of A.C.E.S. – Adult-Child Entitlement Syndrome. Contact Ms. Jaurequi by email or call her office at 909-944-6611.

[From the February/March 2014 issue of AnswerStat magazine]