Human Resource Executive

Manager vs Manager

Employees worried about their jobs because of the tough economy are competing against each other in unhealthy ways. But HR executives can mitigate such problems in several ways, including making people feel more appreciated.

By Scott Flander

As the economy falters, it’s more of a dog-eat-dog world than ever — and your best managers and executives may be the ones snapping at each other’s throats.

Executive coaches and others say that high anxiety in corporate America is causing co-workers to be more competitive, often in harmful ways.

“August is the biggest month I’ve had in 25 years,” says Anna Maravelas, a coach and author of How to Reduce Workplace Conflict and Stress. “I’ve had human resource directors calling me up, they were hyperventilating over the state of their executive teams. They say, ‘Our teams are dysfunctional, the executives are hostile to each other.’

“Maravelas, founder of the St. Paul, Minn.-based firm Thera Rising, which focuses on team building, conflict resolution and leadership development, says co-worker competitiveness has significantly increased over the past year — a situation she attributes to the downturn in the economy.

“When people’s economic security is at risk, their behavior deteriorates,” she says. Among the most serious problems among managers and executives are “backstabbing and avoidance,” she says. “You do something that annoys me, or I don’t agree with, I don’t bring it up. I don’t ask for explanations when things aren’t going well in your division.”

Eventually, she says, executives will stop offering each other a head’s up about imminent problems –“Or worse, they’ll set you up to fail.”

There are other signs co-worker competitiveness is growing. A recent survey of 150 senior executives from large U.S. companies found that nearly half (46 percent) believe employees are more competitive with their co-workers than they were 10 years ago.

But, just in the past year, the competitiveness has been accelerating, says Dave Willmer, executive director of OfficeTeam, which commissioned the survey. The Menlo Park, Calif.-based staffing firm, a division of Robert Half International, places professional and customer-service professionals.

He also puts the blame on the economy.

Competition among co-workers can be healthy, and can benefit companies when times get tough, says Willmer. But HR leaders need to be on the lookout for competition that becomes unhealthy — which can lead to poor morale, lower productivity and difficulty in retaining good employees.

Employee often feel more anxious about their jobs when they don’t get enough recognition, says Willmer. “If recognition is unfairly distributed or not distributed, people become competitive to seek that,” he says.

Competitiveness among co-workers also increases when companies don’t communicate with their employees well — not only about where things stand with the company’s health, but about where an employee’s career stands. “When you don’t know, you tell yourself, ‘I have to do whatever I can,’ ” says Willmer. “But that may not be a healthy thing.”

Joseph Koob, author of Succeeding with Difficult Co-Workers, says he’s seen a growing competitiveness over the last five or six years, as companies have cut back and eliminated entire levels of management. “They’re leaner and meaner, but that creates more work and takes away a fair amount of advancement,” he says.

“Mid-level and senior executives are working tremendously long hours, which puts pressure on everybody,” says Koob, founder of Metacoach, based in Lansdale, Pa.

At the same time, he says, there’s less loyalty to companies, and people are jumping from one to another — which means “you have all these people floating around who are really good.” That gets managers and others worried about their own job security, which creates even more angst and competitiveness, he says.

Co-worker competition can be good when it helps people to do their best, but becomes unhealthy when employees are so unhappy they leave, says Koob. “That eventually undermines the whole organization,” he says.

How can a manager or executive tell when competition has moved from healthy to unhealthy? Koob suggests that leaders walk around and talk to people. Among the signs: “People will be complaining about other people, pointing their fingers. They’ll be blaming others. They’ll be whining about their own situations.”

Like other experts, Koob says that if employees feel appreciated, they’re less likely to worry about their jobs and engage in harmful competition. “It comes down to how people are treated,” he says. “If a manager makes an effort to understand who they are, and appreciate who they are, then competition is fine.”

Maravelas, of Thera Rising, offers these suggestions for keeping competition from getting out of control:

  • “Acknowledge the contributions of your direct reports and other divisions daily.” She recommends inviting leaders and employees from other departments to staff meetings and publicly thanking them. This helps everyone feel appreciated.
  • Eliminate performance measures “that reward employees and leaders for sacrific- ing the needs of other divisions for their own gain” – such as a sales-compensation structure “that drives wedges between groups and leaders.”
  • “Build the consistent message that we don’t throw people under the bus here. As soon as you see a person disrespect or target another person or group, you shut that down.