What we don’t shy away from includes themes of covert competition as embodied by passive aggression and Machiavellian political maneuvers. The problem with not explicitly engendering a culture that values positive regard and mutual respect for others is that, aside from the morale implications, covert competition encourages behaviors in the workforce that come at a high cost.
In their book Love em,or Lose em: Getting good people to stay, authors Beverly Kaye and Sharon Jordan-Evans point out that people don’t leave companies, they leave people. Additionally there are many, many surveys that show that people don’t rate pay as the number one most important reason to stay in a job, they rate relationships with the boss and the coworkers along with the satisfaction they get from the work itself –which in today’s knowledge economy is impacted by the boss and the co-workers. Additionally, the cost of attrition is high. Kaye and Jordan-Evans measured it at 200% of the employee’s salary. Knowledge that is very hard to quantify walks out the door every time an employee leaves. The cost of hiring employees is also high – in the tens of thousands for highly skilled employees and in the thousands for less skilled. This all adds up quickly. Also hard to calculate is the disruption and following loss of productivity within the company every time an employee leaves, especially if they leave because they are unhappy.
Organizational systems are interconnected self-aware webs. Leaders often underestimate the impact on for example a whole department when there is even one bad employee/boss relationship that results in an employee quitting. They then underestimate the communication that has to accompany such events and in that underestimation don’t manage the inevitable rumor mill leading to loss of focus and productivity and more attrition.
Alternatively employees don’t realize that their attempts to undermine the system are highly visible to those around them. An example of this is the person who does the least amount of work on a team (social loafing) or does not do the things they agree to do. Humans are highly sensitive to these discrepancies – especially when there are gaps between say and do. The leader who says, everyone must attend this training because it’s really important and then in the same breath says, he and his executive team did a truncated version of the same training - is creating such a gap. The real message being – this is a check the box activity for those lower in the hierarchy and not to be taken seriously. These types of mixed messages deserve their own post, but you get the idea.
Because these behaviors go on they authorize other behaviors including internal covert competition that is damaging. Above board competition that is transparent and bound by rules can reap many benefits and renew a company. But when competition is covert it includes nasty behaviors that kill teamwork and create awful work cultures where high performance is not sustainable. Examples of unhealthy competition are when one employee takes credit for another’s work or when a leader attributes great work to the wrong employee because of a personal connection or a hidden agenda.
Well poisoning is another common covert competition tool and happens when one employee says things to other employees or the boss that are negative about another employee – this is a career killer for the one with the well poisoned if they are in a culture that supports covert competition or it can be a career killer for the instigator in a culture that values positive regard.
The best response by a leader to an employee who came into her office once complaining about another employee was from Suzanne De Passe. She ran a production company that put out popular shows like Sister, Sister and was Berry Gordy’s right hand at Motown. In a Harvard case study about her leadership, she recounts how she dealt with covert competition. When the employee came into her office complaining about a peer De Passe’s response was to call that other employee into the office right away so that she could get the whole picture in order to get to the heart of the matter. If every leader did this it would clear the way for healthier corporate cultures. The passive aggressive employee gets the message that subterfuge and well poisoning for advancement will not be tolerated, and the leader gets the full story and can mediate the conflict at first bud. Simply put this saves time, money and is a more humane way to lead and models collaboration and teamwork.
So I ask you, where’s the love? Engendering a culture of positive regard and mutual respect in your work force lowers attrition and keeps employees engaged, focused and on the job.