When most people think of a workplace rivalry, they think of competition. Competition is a natural and inevitable force within a growing and thriving workplace. Employees compete for recognition and promotions. Your sales team competes for new business. Even some wellness programs promote rivalry in the form of challenges and incentives. In many cases, workplace competition and the resulting rivalries are healthy and productive. Successes are celebrated, employees share ideas and morale gets a boost.
But what about rivalries where competition turns contentious? That kind of rivalry can be demotivating and disruptive. Signs of an unhealthy rivalry between employees might include:
- Sarcastic or derogatory comments, especially in front of upper management
- Avoiding collaboration
- Defensive body language
- Passive-aggressive behavior
If this sounds familiar, read on. Here are a few tips on dealing with a workplace rivalry gone bad:
1. Say something
If you notice a pattern of these behaviors, do yourself and your team a favor by acknowledging it. If left unaddressed, a spiteful workplace rivalry can manifest into a major issue — especially if a larger personality, cultural or political difference is at the core.
Sometimes, a simple conversation is all it takes. Tell your employees what you’ve witnessed. Ask if they need help addressing the problem. If you have trouble getting their attention and buy-in, you may need to mention your organization’s policy around teamwork and respect. (Everyone has this, right?)
Remind your employees that you’re all on the same team. Healthy competition = good. Competition that undermines collaboration = not cool.
2. Don’t take sides
As a leader, it’s important to stay neutral and avoid getting entrenched in workplace drama. However, you’ll still need to stay involved to some degree.
In some cases, your employees may work things out on their own. After your initial discussion with the employees, they may feel embarrassed and self-correct after being called out. In other situations, they may ask for help and will rely on you to provide that assistance.
Either way, remember to follow up and hold the employees accountable for finding and sticking to a solution.
3. Know your options
When it comes to workplace rivalries, personality conflicts, bullying and other disruptive employee issues, possible interventions include:
- Assign dueling employees to the same project to stimulate collaboration.
- Offer coaching for improved communication skills.
- Coordinate fun activities that focus on personality types, communication and team building.
- Encourage employees to access the employee assistance program (EAP) to deal with any issues that may be contributing to their unhealthy rivalry.
- Consider a mandatory referral to the EAP (as long as this is incorporated into your disciplinary policy).
Your EAP can also provide management coaching on how best to approach and handle difficult workplace situations. They may also offer conflict resolution support or a referral for mediation.
If your employees don’t seem invested in solving the problem, you may consider disciplinary action. If the issues simply can’t be overcome and you’re dealing with otherwise top performers, you may consider transferring or separating the employees if that option exists. Get your HR team involved early in the process and remember to document everything.
4. Know your audience
As we mentioned earlier, competition can be natural — and even healthy — within certain departments or companies. If you’re initiating or encouraging workplace competition, consider the following:
- Be cognizant of any existing rivalries or issues that could be exacerbated by competition.
- Make sure it’s the right environment. If you have a team that already doesn’t work well together, competition might push them further apart.
- Make sure it’s the right team. Competition isn’t for everyone. Know what motivates your people.
- Remember, competition should ultimately make the team better. Make sure to align the fun and games with your team and company’s overarching goals.
Sometimes, competition can bring out the best in employees — other times, it can bring out the worst. If rivalries in your workplace are getting out of hand, make sure to follow these tips to get back to a place of healthy competition. If you need additional resources to help you address contentious employee behaviors, reach out.