The Green-Eyed Monster

Keeping Envy Out of the Workplace

The Green-Eyed Monster - Keeping Envy Out of the Workplace

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Make the workplace out of bounds for envy.

A CEO to whom I reported, a few years ago, entered my office one day, slumped into the chair across from me and said, clearly bewildered: "I have done everything I can to make the staff happy – we pay good wages, we have a rich benefit plan, we allow people flexibility in their hours, and yet, still there is animosity and bickering. I don't understand what drives these people to behave the way they do."

The answer was at once simple and complex. It had to do with employee emotions – and, in particular, one emotion: Envy. Emotions are a powerful instigator of behavior, and envy, the unmentionable emotion, is perhaps one of the most pervasive and powerful of all the disruptive emotions that affect our corporate environments. We are not used to talking about envy in polite society or in our workplaces. Yet it is there, woven within the fabric of our organizations and it affects employee moods, organizational morale and culture and, ultimately, it is one of the causes of employee disengagement and productivity loss.

There are many reasons for envy to manifest itself in the daily theatre of the workplace: Competing for scarce resources or limited budgets, and vying for important assignments, are commonplace situations that can trigger predictable envy; Coveting attributes and qualities a colleague has that another might lack is another understandable possibility in the frailty of human nature; Losing a promotion to someone better qualified can also be a trigger for envy. Many of these situations are normal occurrences and cannot be avoided. They are a part of our workplace scenarios and many human resources practitioners have, at one time or other, witnessed a manifestation of these situations.

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But there is an overlooked trigger for envy that may very well be an insidious cause of much discontent and disruption in the workplace. It is the leader's unwitting behavior towards select people in the organization.

Let's take one case in point: It is safe to say that many organizations have an individual who has a great deal of personal power that is often not associated with any position function or high level title – it comes from what is often referred to as "having the boss's ear". All employees, except perhaps the hapless newcomer, sense that anything that is said within earshot of that individual will automatically be relayed to the boss – worse still is the fear that it will be relayed with personal filtering and self-serving interpretations. This naturally causes others to envy the person's power and closeness to the boss and results in a climate of apprehension and distrust of the individual, and by extension, the leader.

Another common scenario is associated with the hiring of new "top guns". Here is what happens: A leader joining an organization inherits a number of long-term employees. In due course, the leader hires additional employees who are often perceived to be more liked by the leader because they were hand-picked by him or her and are viewed as more in line with the leader's ethos and style. It's not uncommon to hear the leader himself privately refer to this as "assembling my own team". The existing employees are still well treated but there are subtle nuances in the leader's behavior towards the newcomers that signal that the newcomers are viewed as more valuable to the team: The leader is seen spending more time with them and is generally more complimentary and supportive of anything they do or say. In meetings, for example, he or she will more readily support ideas and suggestions by the newcomers, will represent them more favorably to upper management and give them more visibility in the company.

While it is impossible for a leader to eradicate envy from the workplace, there is much a leader can do to create an environment that minimizes its occurrence. The scholar who has done the most research on the issue of envy in the workplace is Dr Robert P Vecchio. In "Managing Envy and Jealousy in the Workplace", one of many articles he has authored on the topic, Dr Vecchio talks about envy and jealousy as "commonplace in work settings in part because of the inherent competitiveness of organizational life". He recommends five initiatives to counteract these pervasive reactions:

  1. Evaluating the emotional maturity of candidates at the time of hire.
  2. Incorporating elements of team culture.
  3. Implementing incentives that support cooperation.
  4. Encouraging open communication.
  5. Placing high performers [who often give rise to envy] in mentor roles.

To this, one can add a note of advice to leaders regarding their personal behavior: As leaders, we are continuously being observed by employees who notice our every move and micro expressions – they know which employees are allowed in the inner circle from which they feel excluded. Leaders should pay particular attention that they don't innocently build these chosen few up while neglecting the others. As my CEO was made aware that afternoon when he dropped into my office, frequent public praise of only a select few, heightens employees' feelings of insecurity about their own performance and causes resentment which in turns affects productivity. A leader who becomes aware of this stress-related reaction that his or her behavior causes on employees will be better able to manage negative emotions, such as envy, in the workplace and create a more relaxed and happier work environment for everyone. In turn, this will help avoid the loss of productivity that accompanies the green-eyed monster.

Copyright © 2009- by Bruna Martinuzzi. All Rights Reserved.

This article is an excerpt from Bruna Martinuzzi’s book: "The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow." Bruna is an educator, author and speaker specializing in emotional intelligence, leadership, Myers-Briggs and presentation skills training. Visit her website at www.clarionenterprises.com.

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Comments (8)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Oh no Debbie - I'm so sorry to hear this is happening around you. It's a tough situation.
    I've never experienced it personally, but I've certainly seen it happening.

    Maybe it's a good thing that you've started looking for other employment; staying in the situation for an indefinite period will take a huge toll on you, unless something in the situation changes.
    I'm always for it that people have open and honest conversations with people they don't get along with, but I'm not sure it will be worth your while in this case? You'll be the best judge of that. If you feel it might make a difference and make things a bit more liveable, then consider doing it. Otherwise, the best you can do is to keep your head high, keep your side clean and deliver such good quality work that the GM will miss you badly when you're gone.
    I want to suggest that you take this challenging situation over to the forums and let's discuss it there. I'm sure many others can learn from it and some will also relate to it.

    Yolandé
    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago ExecAssistDebbie wrote
    I am experiencing a similar situation at my job. A new general manager was hired in June of this year, and instead of asking me to join his management team (after being an employee for almost 3 years), he asked a new employee who has been at the company about 4 months, to be his assistant. I haven't been feeling jealousy or envy, but lots of confusion and concern to the stability of my job. I understood better 1 week later what was going on, when the GM told me he didn't like me, and didn't want me working at the company anymore. I am still at that company until I get hired elsewhere.

    The GM is also creating his own circle of favorite employees and disrespecting those he doesn't like. It is very sad to see the division of employees and management, and the President is watching it all happen.

    Has anyone else experienced anything like this at their company?
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    It's an important point you make that fairness from leaders must be perceived as clearly fair to all employees. Thanks for sharing the thought with us.
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