It sounds scary and it can be. Malicious envy. What’s interesting about this destructive and powerful emotion is how successful leaders can trigger it.
Let’s start with some definitions. You feel ‘green with envy’ when you’re not happy with your self-image or stature. You feel envious of someone when you feel inferior to them—when you envy their qualities, or achievements or what they possess. In short, it’s the stress you feel when others have what you want.
Envy exists in all workplaces and affects those at all levels, including leaders.
Ironically, envy can be positive, motivating you to perform at higher levels (benign envy). It can also be nasty, leading to destructive behaviour designed to put others down (malicious envy). This type of envy can undermine relationships and have a negative impact on productivity and missed opportunities—at individual and/or organisational levels. It can damage work relationships and lead to sabotage. It has a negative impact on creativity, which every organisation needs to survive.
But what does envy have to do with leadership? Surely successful leaders rise above and lead by example to inspire others to do the same?
Not necessarily says Dr Kim Vella, an accredited executive career coach who deals with malicious envy regularly in her workshops and in the one-on-one coaching sessions she holds with leaders and aspiring leaders.
Kim says it’s ironic but malicious envy relates to leaders withholding or hiding their failures or openly talking about their setbacks. ‘We’re all human and we all have failures,’ says Kim. ‘When leaders refuse to admit them or discuss them with colleagues or team members, they can trigger malicious envy among their peers.’
Researchers at Harvard University shed some light on this baffling situation: ‘Such envy creates dysfunctional behaviour as peers, or even direct reports, seek to tear down and undermine the successful leader (even while considering unethical means to do so as justified). It also leads employees to behave less cooperatively and disrupts a sense of teamwork.’
If this is the case—and Kim agrees that it is—why do so many leaders insist on presenting themselves as perfect, strong and capable, instead of humans who have failings?
Kim says it’s partly lack of understanding about the impact that malicious envy has on those being led.
‘Many leaders believe that team members will think less of them if they admit to weaknesses,’ says Kim. ‘They believe they won’t be admired or respected, but the opposite is often true. When leaders are honest and candid about their personal imperfections and/or setbacks or failures in the workplace, they often inspire others and encourage them to carry onwards and upwards, working hard to overcome obstacles like their leader has. They get to understand that failure is part of everyone’s life and are more confident about giving things a go. They also learn that showing vulnerability, for example through self-deprecating humour, is a strength not a weakness.’
Recap for leaders
- Learn about malicious envy and its role in the workplace.
- Organise a health check for yourself—perhaps through sessions with an accredited coach—to test how authentic you really are.
- Develop strategies for talking openly with team members and colleagues about your challenges and failures in the workplace, not just your successes.
- Share mistakes in a way that isn’t related to fear. Humour can help show your vulnerability in a non-threatening and memorable way.
- Work with your team to explore case studies on failure, including some of your own. Examine the causes, effects and valuable lessons that emerge and incorporate learnings into your work world. This will help build a positive and respectful attitude around ‘we’re all in this together, as a team’.
- Build a culture that values and celebrates authenticity.
- Remember that the research points to how revealing the professional mistakes you’ve made along your path to success decreases malicious envy in the workplace.
- Take a leadership workshop to build new skills or freshen up on your existing skills.
Want a health check on your leadership authenticity? Dr Kim Vella offers a free, 15-minute coaching session. Book here.
Keen on leadership workshops? Kim’s workshops are dynamic, informative and 100 per cent guaranteed to make you a sharper leader. Check them out.