Tuesday, 31 January 2012 19:00

The positives and negatives of jealousy

At first blush, it might seem a bit perverse that jealousy can be a good thing, a motivator and a catalyst for change. However, like very rich food, ingested in moderation it can be quite good, while overindulgence can bring on a world-class case of heartburn and indigestion.

Like it or not, in life and in business jealousy is always lurking in the shadows. When it rears its ugly head and is not properly controlled in your organization, it can precipitate a problem, do irreparable harm and become a major distraction in the workplace. It also stifles productivity, turning otherwise earnest and collaborative employees into a bunch of rumor mongering, whispering backbiters.

Conversely, a small dose of good or “productive” jealousy can spur others on to new heights. A leader’s job is to recognize the point when good turns to bad and to learn how to manage jealousy. This involves encouraging it (read that as creating competition) but also putting one’s foot down with a loud thud to get everyone’s attention and stopping the bad jealousy in its tracks when it begins leading to potential negative and divisive behaviors.

One of the many challenges of running a business is acknowledging that not everyone is equal, not everyone is motivated by the same factors. Varying attitudes and personalities can challenge the people skills of even the most effective leader. The infamous Rodney King who was at the epicenter of the disastrous 1992 Los Angeles riots asked the rhetorical question in a nationally televised appeal for peace: “Why can’t we just all get along?” The reality was and is, “Rodney, we probably can’t, no matter how hard everyone tries.” The sobering fact is that anytime there are two or more people together in a room the risk of disagreement and unbridled rivalry emerges and troubles can ignite, many times for inexplicable reasons unknown even to the participants. This is when management has to manage.

Good jealousy is easy to understand and an aware leader knows how to use it effectively. Example: Someone on the team has a unique idea or does something out of the ordinary, which benefits the greater good. The accomplishment is rightly recognized and celebrated by management. There are always people, however, who on the surface join in praising the effort but deep down inside are envious of the other person’s accomplishment. You can read the negative expression on their faces like a bad poker player who’s bluffing and everyone knows it. Enter the smart boss who helps the seeming ingrate understand that he or she can also receive comparable accolades when warranted. The boss then directs the uninspired employee’s envy (jealousy) effectively toward a positive goal, subtly or not so subtly, illuminating a path for the glory seeker to follow to reach a mutually agreed upon outcome.

Bad jealousy, on the flip side, can be like a forest fire that starts quickly and jumps around erratically, destroying anything and everything in its path. The only way to handle this type of negative behavior, which turns cohorts against one other, is with an iron fist and a candid, behind-closed-doors meeting. Typically, this requires identifying the “ring leader” — and there always is one — and then having the boss engage in a very one-sided conversation with that employee to make it clear that this behavior stops when the perpetrator opens the door and exits.

Many times, once unmasked, the naysayers recognize that they’ll be under constant scrutiny and become instant cheerleaders for what was accomplished by the other colleague primarily to defuse any future damage in the eyes of the senior management. Good leadership is about steering the ship, managing behaviors, maintaining a constant vigil, watching for warning signs, and then reacting appropriately without hesitation. In the case of bad jealousy, speed counts, as measured in hours, not days or weeks, in stemming the spread of rumors and innuendos.

There is a delicate balance needed to keep a team on track and productive. However, knowing the difference between good jealousy and bad can keep the organization moving forward. We all know not everyone is created equal, and that means different people must be managed differently to accomplish goals and keep the employees and the company off jagged and potentially painful rocks.

Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. Reach him with comments at mfeuer@max-wellness.com.

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