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Jealous Leader´s Behaviour: the Othello Boss Syndrome

By José Ramón Pin and Guido Stein

Figures from classical literature are used in psychology to name behaviours, and it is also helpful to use this technique to describe the world of human behaviour in business. Below, José Ramón Pin and Guido Stein use Shakespeare’s Othello to address jealousy resulting from the success of others, such as bosses and peers, customers, suppliers and shareholders.

“Jealousy contains more of self-love than of love.”

François de La Rouchefoucauld

The Jealousy of the Othello Boss Our teaching and consulting experience has often put us in the position of dealing with a manager's career problems that can only be fully understood under the hypothesis of a jealous boss. In a manner similar to that of Othello, whose love for Desdemona leads him to suffer the passion of jealousy that motivates all of his actions, in corporate life you sometimes come across managers and businesspeople whose quest for publicly recognised power, brilliance or professional success generates a jealousy that consciously or unconsciously affects their decisions.

According to the dictionary, jealousy is the ‘suspicion that an affection or item of personal value that one has or aims to possess may be achieved by somebody else’. The phenomenon occurs in certain circumstances: one case is that of managers with an immature or somewhat unbalanced personality who are lacking in self-esteem and confidence. This situation may be temporary – for instance, a newly hired boss may not yet master a job that has taken a great deal of effort to achieve, or the previous boss may have moved on, which makes the new boss feel the need to prove his or her skills. It may also be recurrent, due to a sense of insecurity or lack of confidence that is rooted in the character traits of the jealous boss.

This insecurity translates into a fear of being replaced by someone brighter. Visible behaviours include: 1. Heavily criticising the performance of subordinates with a view to belittling their work. It sometimes means engaging in arguments and unkind gestures that are incomprehensible to others. 2. Eliminating the presence of subordinates, who are viewed as internal competitors, at meetings with the company’s senior management. 3. Commissioning difficult – or almost impossible – projects and providing insufficient resources with which to complete them. This leads to errors and failures of subordinates, which can undermine their competitive skills. 4. Dismissing the subordinate from a project for no appar-

ent reason or with a banal excuse. This abusive supervision by bosses has been widely studied in the literature. For instance, Liu, Liao and Loi (2012)1 describe actions that hinder the creativity of employees in up to two hierarchy levels below the jealous manager.

Othello managers generate other Othello managers and eventually imbue the culture of a company with a climate of mutual distrust, in such a way that it becomes progressively more evident as you advance in levels of responsibility. In this respect, the ’Iagos’ play a critical role. Lago is Othello's ensign; he knows his boss well and is familiar with his weaker character traits, so he can effectively exert an influence on him. His role is that of an instigator: he makes Othello jealous by insinuating his wife is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio, who is eventually dismissed. Insidious people who thrive on causing distrust among others may be intrinsically weak, but they are always dangerous, since they foster a sense of confrontation where none existed and often cause such confrontations to materialise. Some senior executives and businesspeople allow and even encourage the figure of Iago as walls with which to defend their positions, in the style of the Praetorian Guard, which in turn leads to a greater climate of distrust.

64 The European Business Review January - February 2014