Jealousy in the workplace

Dear Joan:
Could you please write about coping with jealousy in the workplace? Of particular interest to us are:

·        Statistics regarding how commonplace jealousy is

·        The responsibility of a manager to communicate to individuals the reasons they have been passed over for a promotion and what they may do to improve their positioning for future openings.

As much as we hate to admit it, we've all been jealous of someone else at one time or another. We hate to admit it because the emotion we feel is a deep, dark, nasty feeling. Jealousy is the surface lesion that hints at the real wound: a sense of personal loss, a lowering of self-esteem and, at times, a feeling of self-criticism. These deeper emotions seep out in the form of anger and they can be tough to deal with in the workplace, where there is competition for rewards and opportunities.

Frederick C. Miner Jr. Ph.D., a professor of management at St. Mary’s University, Nova Scotia, Canada, conducted a recent study on the subject. To determine the part jealousy plays in organizations, he surveyed 278 employees in 200 organizations. What he found is surprising and spans all organizational levels, education, age, organizational types and gender. (His results can be found in the April, 1990 Personnel Journal.)

He found that more than three-quarters of respondents reported observing a jealous situation in their work environment. Perhaps more surprising was the fact that more than one-half indicate they were directly involved in such a situation and over one-quarter of the group admitted that they were jealous of someone else during the past month. Wow!

This becomes even more disturbing when you consider the distinction that was made between jealousy and envy. The question was asked: "If I could give the person a similar benefit, would that satisfy him or her?" If the answer was an honest yes, the emotion was considered envy. But if the answer was no, the next question was asked: "If I could remove the benefit I gave, would that satisfy him or her?" If the answer is yes, the emotion was called jealousy. In other words, the jealous person wanted to "hurt" the person who had something he or she didn't have.

It gets worse. The data show that the jealous person typically will try to bring co-workers to their side (72%). The discontent multiplies as others get dragged in and sides are chosen. Miner points out, "Although it's natural that people will talk, the data show that these people are doing more than conveying information. For example, in more than one-third of the situations, jealous people try to undermine (spread rumors, act destructively and so on) the co-workers they're jealous of: one-quarter of the time they try to undermine the position of the benefit provider."

Often, managers tried to solve these situations by trying to redistribute the benefit to the jealous person only to find that it backfired. In other instances, they assumed that a logical explanation of their reasoning would solve the problem. Instead of helping, in- depth justification only seemed to intensify the jealous person's loss of self-esteem and self-criticism.

So what's a manager to do? Here are some of Miner's suggestions:

First, managers need to be aware that when they hand out promotions and other benefits, jealousy can erupt. As a part of this situation, their behaviors can have a dramatic affect on the degree of jealousy in the work environment.

Second, managers should consider the underlying issues at the root of the jealousy. Consider the example in your letter. If someone is passed over for a promotion, he or she might be furious with the boss and cause trouble for the new promotee. Although anger is the obvious emotion, the employee's self-worth may be at the heart of it. A manager is wise to spend a few minutes explaining the qualifications and what the person can do to be ready for the next opportunity. Ignoring the basic human emotions at work here will only cause bigger problems later.

Miner suggests that a neutral facilitator may be needed to bring the three people together to resolve the issue (the jealous person, the person who gave the benefit and the receiver of the benefit).

He also suggests that follow-up will be necessary after the problem has been uncovered. It will take a while for trust to develop.

Finally, he suggests that any organization that thinks that jealousy isn't a problem in their organization should look under the surface. Managers can manage the problems but only if they're understood.

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616,, or 
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