PRESIDENT'S CORNER: Fear and Blame in the Real Estate Culture

Crystal Hawkins Syska | July 14, 2021

I had a chance meeting at lunch with a Mother and Daughter real estate team in Briarcliff Manor—Mary Jane Florent and Nancy Beard. Mary Jane was talking about the good old days of real estate. “It was just fun! People trusted each other and everyone got along. Now real estate is fear and blame.” That struck a chord with me and I asked if I could use it. And she told me to go right ahead. I agree with her, real estate can feel like a lot of fear and blame, which is actually quite jarring and problematic to mental health. Therefore, I thought this was a good topic to write about for the benefit of our membership.

As we all emerged out of the world of COVID, we were plagued with fear on a monumental scale. I remember being on line at the grocery store in the beginning of the restrictions and lockdown. Seeing all the masked and gloved patrons and the staff who were spraying down shopping carts with a backpack like something out of “Ghostbusters” was nearly apocalyptic. Our businesses shut down and we were all effectively out of work. Our sources of income choked out in a night. Not being able to support ourselves, that was a major cause for fear.

When we as real estate agents were allowed back to work, the fear over disclosure forms, questionnaires, access to properties, possible exposure to the virus and potential liability just caused more fear to mount. Our work of selling homes had an added layer of responsibility that was a stress factor. It meant the adoption of unfamiliar technology and processes that proved more challenging for some more than others. That also added to the fear.

Then there is the blame factor. As agents, we carry a heavy weight on our shoulders as we can be and are blamed for just about everything real or imagined. Sometimes we have to be the bearers of bad news and as the messengers we get blamed. All of this can contribute to an environment of a lack of accountability, trust and diminished professionalism, thus performance.

In March 2017, Liz Ryan wrote the article, “Ten Unmistakable Signs of a Fear-Based Workplace” for Forbes magazine. When I read the article, I was shocked at how many of those signs applied to the real estate industry. I’m going to share all of them and some are adjusted from employee to worker language to broker to agent language.

1. In a fear-based workplace, everyone is focused on their daily goals. They have to be because if they miss a goal, they could lose money. You won’t get collaboration or innovation out of people who are scared to death!

2. In a fear-based culture, managers and staff people specialize in assigning leads, measuring results, punishing infractions and maintaining order. In a healthy culture, managers and staff people specialize in listening to agents, problem-solving with them, celebrating successes and envisioning even greater successes!

3. In a fear-based environment, agents are afraid to tell the truth because they already know no one wants to hear it.

4. In a fear-based agency, people talk incessantly about who’s up and who’s down in their numbers and deals. The rumor mill is more credible than official communication. In a healthy company, managers and agents talk about sticky topics. They don’t avoid them just because they are awkward to address.

5. In a fear-based company, agents wonder whether they’ll still have business next week.

6. In a fear-based workplace, following rules and avoiding blame are every team’s top priorities. Collaborating, experimenting and having fun do not make the list. If there is a company mission statement on the wall, no one cares about it: the only mission agents can focus on is “Don’t screw up!”

7. In a fear-based environment, managers talk about collaboration and out-of-the-box thinking but no one takes them seriously. You cannot get collaboration or new ideas from beaten-down agents.

8. In a fear-based culture, agents disappear without warning. When someone disappears, people speak their names in whispers if they mention them at all.

9. In a fear-based workplace the smartest and most capable agents don’t get opportunities. The people who get opportunities and leads are the ones who most wholeheartedly embrace the fear-based culture.

10. In a fear-based environment, the hardest thing to do is to stay human. When you keep your sense of humor, your warmth and your confidence despite the cloud of fear, you can expect to be labeled “unprofessional” or worse.

Now I am not writing this to be a “Debbie Downer” (no offense to any of the Debbie’s of the world). Yet. I was floored at this list. How do we counteract this? Through courage and accountability. This is a paradigm shift that must be modeled and supported by our office and industry leaders. Now this is easier said than done, yet it can be done. Here are some ways we can get started:

Be a Responder Not a Reactor

It is easy for us to let our emotions take the wheel. When problems or challenges arise in your or your agents’ businesses, pause. Pose the problem to the office and let them chime in with possible solutions. Be sure not to out the person needing help as this could create a sense of feeling unsafe. That could in turn arm the fight or flight defense.

Build Trust

Building trust requires being a “real” person and being authentic. This is not a one-shot deal. It takes time and genuine one-to-one engagement. The simplest way is to say what you mean and mean what you say, tactfully. Keep your promises. If your office has a mission statement, live it.

Create and Maintain a Process

Systems work! If agents have a roadmap it reduces fear. Being visual could also be an added boon. Also adding a component that allows feedback can increase engagement and inclusion.

We are not going to fix this overnight, but in our new environment managing fear and blame is an asset that is not going to go out of style anytime soon. So, let’s all start having some more fun at work and in life!! We all need it.

Crystal Hawkins Syska
is the 2021 President of the Hudson Gateway Association of Realtors, Inc