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By Eugene L. Meyer Utopian visions of a harmonious workplace sometimes clash with office politics in the real world, and that is as true in real estate as elsewhere.

Office politics almost invariably means conflict, whether personalities or policies are the cause, and for a broker that can be bad for business, resulting in unhappy agents and dissatisfied customers. But the experts hold out hope. How to manage conflict, and how to create a win-win situation where everyone benefits and nobody loses, has become something of a growth industry, with plenty of ideas to go around.

Sometimes the ideas themselves conflict. Take the notion of harmony, for instance. It would seem at first to be desirable, but maybe not. “Harmony is the enemy of creativity,” says David L. Bradford, director of the Executive Program in Leadership at Stanford University.

Others disagree, however. “I don’t believe disharmony is healthy. It can easily be distracting,” says Robyn Erlenbush, a Bozeman, Montana real estate broker.

“I don’t think conflict is necessarily a good thing,” adds Steve Baird, president and CEO of Chicago-based Baird & Warner. “If you’re having a lot of conflict in the office, it’s a situation where someone’s not managing the office well.”

Is Harmony Really the Goal?

That all depends, says Bradford. He is among those who consider harmony repressive, and ultimately bad for business. “We have this myth we are one happy family,” says Bradford. “If we have the value of harmony, we hold down divergent opinions, the source of new ideas and creativity. We need different points of view. The question is not how do you get harmony but how do leaders and teams utilize differences and disagreements in a creative way? ”

Adds Allan R. Cohen, of the Babson Institute in Massachusetts: “Harmony is not necessarily an appropriate goal. It can mean suppression of productive conflict. In some offices, people hold back too much because they are afraid a boss or colleague will get angry. It’s not about who’s more powerful or who can shout the loudest.

“Nobody wants to make career-limiting moves by taking on the boss. It’s a leadership challenge to give people the feeling they won’t be retaliated against if they disagree. It’s easy to maintain harmony if one person decides everything. But from the boss’s standpoint, that’s not healthy. You’ll just be wrong, because you won’t know enough. You’ll make bad decisions.”

Leaders Need to Step In
Bradford and Cohen, co-authors of a book entitled Influence Without Authority, urge managers to be comfortable with conflict and, Cohen says, “not be so uptight they repress it, or divide and conquer so they can stay powerful.”
If their views seem at first to be counter-intuitive, they are not alone in holding them.

Beverly Smallwood is a Hattiesburg, Mississippi psychologist who, under the business name of Magnetic Workplaces, advises companies on conflict resolution. “No conflict is not a good sign,” she says. “It means it is underground and still there, or it could mean that people are apathetic, not contributing ideas, don’t care enough to disagree or provide ideas.
“But conflict can go over the line when folks attack each other instead of the problem,” she adds. “You can discuss and disagree on the facts in a way that lets everybody be heard.” Management, in turn, “must be direct and assertive but still respectful in the process.

“It gets modeled at the top,” she says. She often hears from executives who “call me and say, ‘You need to fix those folks down there.’ Then I find that conflict is modeled by top leaders. You have to begin at the top. I talk with the top folks, find out their vision and how things are working. I do assessments on their styles of leading. Then I consult with them on how they are coaching their agents.”

Sometimes, she says, “It’s like everybody has their own agenda, and they’re not on the same team. It’s like in football if the halfback and quarterback were fighting with each other. Successful teams in the workplace have to put their different roles together to serve the customers so that they don’t go to another real estate company.”

Smallwood recalls applying her principles to a local real estate client. “The language is different but the principles apply, people to people: try to serve the customers, remove bottlenecks. The most successful realize the pie is big enough for everyone. They work together, share ideas, encourage and support each other. Then, everybody wins.”

But different people have different styles, she notes, and managers must be sensitive to such variations. “If I come on like gangbusters I can wind up causing conflict instead of resolving it.”

Organizing brokerages into teams of agents, each with a leader, can lead to creative tension, producing both conflict and solutions. “The teams can be more efficient, in their use of time, support, economies of scale, and specialization,” says Bob Blount, president and CEO of RE/MAX Allegiance, which has 1,200 agents in 42 offices in the Virginia-Maryland-DC area.
But unless everyone’s roles and rewards are spelled out in writing, teams can also be problematic, “with some members feeling others are not carrying their end of the stick.” An agreement should spell out “when a commission comes in, who gets what, who is responsible for what work, what does the team leader bring to the table-day to day issues. When you have multiple people doing a function, it can get more complex. For instance, who generated the lead?”

With online leads, giving credit where credit is due can become even more complicated. “The agents are grown-ups,” Blount says. “They need to figure it out, work it out, and know what their agreement is.

“If the broker decides, usually nobody is happy. We make every effort to avoid that. That’s why we have training and counseling.”

Put it in Writing

Almost all real estate agents operate as independent contractors associated with brokerages. If conflicts arise between agents and the agencies, written agreements rule, and, if all else fails, disputes are settled through arbitration.

“It’s very important that a broker have a written manual, be clear and consistent with expectations, policies and procedures, and enforce the rules,” Blount says. “But from time to time, there is simply no meeting of the minds between a broker and agent. The broker needs to listen. If he accepts the agent’s position, fantastic. If not, then the broker needs be firm in enforcing policies and can’t play favorites, or he will generate all kinds of friction in the company.”
When a conflict occurs, he says, “give people a chance to voice their concerns, then demonstrate interest and understanding of their positions. If they become disruptive, impacting staff and agents, they need to be asked to leave in order to maintain morale and to demonstrate your resolve.”

But not every conflict occurs within a brokerage. “There may also be problems between agents in different companies, which brokers have to mediate,” Blount says. “There are as many different variations as people involved in the industry.”
“The basic process we use for resolving any kind of conflict,” says Baird, , “is we train mangers on basic conflict resolution, to go through the process where you hear both sides and try work out a resolution.”

If that doesn’t work, Baird adds, management must step in. “We take appropriate steps,” he says. However, “The important thing is to in a formal sense hear both sides of the story. Let people feel they are being treated fairly and being heard.”

Conflict doesn’t occur often in his shop, Baird says. “We train our people the best way to resolve an issue before it becomes a conflict, to nip things early in bud. Once things get too far, it gets to be a big problem. Good managers recognize those conflicts early on and try to deal with them, before people harden their positions.

The Peer-to-Peer Approach

“Ninety percent of it is you never get to a place where two agents are drawing swords with each other. If a lot of situations are getting to that point, you’re not doing the right thing as a manager. In most cases, it’s a pure misunderstanding.”

On the other hand, Baird says, “I’m not interested in running a company where everyone agrees with everyone all the time. You can have different points of view without creating conflict.”

Some brokers say their agencies are devoid of conflict, to their benefit. “I’m real lucky. I have a very team-oriented staff,” says Erlenbush, the Bozeman broker, who has 50 agents in four offices. “Everybody here knows how we operate. There are no side conversations or triangularity. If there are problems, I tell people to go directly to that person who is the source of their concern. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that resolves the issue,” without her involvement.

“I’m always happy to be in the loop,” she adds. However, “if I make the decision, it’s a lose-lose situation for everyone. In the end, if I can have two people in a room talking directly, both have ownership. I’m in the room if they want me. I ask them to behave, respect and listen to each other.

“In a professional setting,” she says, “it’s not a popularity contest, it’s not junior high. Salespeople by nature are very confident and strong, but if they are all part of the same company and team, they become tolerant of personalities. However, if a customer approaches another agent, there is a need for agent-to-agent talk.

“I certainly strive to have a creative and congenial work environment. Like a family, conflicts are part of life. It’s important to deal with and resolve them, and not to procrastinate. It is fine to be competitive and healthy to foster inter-company competition. However, no one individual can succeed at the cost of another.

“On occasion, I have to step in. In the end, the buck stops with me.” However, she says, she has never had to fire someone because of an unresolved conflict. In part she attributes that to good hiring practices. “I hire very slow. I’m looking for a fit. In the long-term, they must subscribe to our culture and play by our rules.”

Though they may disagree over harmony, Erlenbush and Bradford agree on the best route to conflict resolution. “I always want to get peer to pee resolution,” says Bradford. “Otherwise, you’re forced to be King Solomon and the losing party resents you and you often get passive resistance”

Says Cohen: “You want a common vision of goals for the business. That’s what pulls people past their self-interest and parochial points of view. That’s the uniter.”