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Via LinkedIn : A Director 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.

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 Director 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.