Jealous Leader’s Behaviour: the Othello Boss Syndrome

January 20, 2014 • Editors' Pick, LEADERSHIP, Leadership Development

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.

scce-2014-ecei-twfr-200x300According 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 apparent 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)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.

You cannot go against a person’s nature, so discovering the existence of the Othello syndrome early on prevents a great deal of unpleasant environments in businesses. Otherwise, the dynamics of jealousy will continue to expand and lead to permanently broken interpersonal relationships.

The Othello syndrome spreads in companies in a similar way: a boss names a subordinate for a job and when that person triumphs, the boss fears for his or her own success and prestige. Another employee then goes on to ‘open the boss’s eyes’ regarding the apparently valuable subordinate. If the boss fails to exercise caution, he or she can be swayed by the insinuations. Once the jealousy process begins, it takes a great deal of strength to retract.

From a practical standpoint, there are three challenges: a) discovering this symptom in the manager; b) doing something to neutralise or correct it; and c) preventing the emergence of this syndrome in oneself.


Keys to Reacting to an Othello Boss

Having an Othello boss is a source of dissatisfaction and concern, especially if the boss already has an intrinsically jealous nature. According to Maslow (1990) :

‘It is generally acknowledged that it is more enjoyable to love than it is to hate. However, pleasure in hating is real and cannot be neglected. There are certain types of neurotic people who take greater pleasure in destruction and hatred than in friendship and love’.

And on another occasion (1960), he writes:

‘The person who seeks power is precisely the one who should not be given it, because it is a neurotic and compulsive need. These people make a very harmful use of their power: they walk over people and manipulate or hurt them to satisfy their selfish, conscious or unconscious, neurotic or healthy inclinations. When they are leaders, they are not concerned with what is most important in every given situation; their priority is themselves their own complacency’.2

Because you cannot go against a person’s nature, discovering the existence of the Othello syndrome early on prevents a great deal of pain and unpleasant environments in businesses. Otherwise, the dynamics of jealousy will continue to expand and lead to permanently broken interpersonal relationships. At the first signs of behaviours related to this syndrome, one must react with care – it is always advisable for the subordinate to simultaneously acknowledge the manager’s skills, successes and support. This approach lowers the precautions of the Othello boss and partially renders the actions of any ‘Iagos’ useless.

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Like anything that has to do with psychology and human behaviour, such actions are difficult not only to recognise, but also to apply, as they can make the jealous person even more aggressive. A reaction that may cause such an escalation would be to inform the Othello boss’s superiors of the jealous behaviour. Sometimes, a realistic option is to distance oneself from the boss by seeking a transfer within the company or resigning.

Guillermo S. Edelberg gives specific advice for avoiding envy or jealousy from one’s boss, colleagues or subordinates:3

Strive to prevent situations that can be interpreted as unfair, arbitrary or showing favoritism.
Be alert to signs that indicate its appearance.
Talk to the person who is showing these signs as soon as possible. If the person is your boss, this must be done very tactfully to avoid enhancing their jealous feelings.
Deal with these behaviours as a human emotion rather than as a ‘base passion’; i.e., professionally, setting aside the mixed feelings they trigger. Understanding jealous people well is the first step towards dealing with them.

It should not be ruled out that Othello bosses, after seeing the negative and even devastating effect of their jealous behaviour, may repent, just as the Shakespearean character does. And although the harm has already been done and is often irreversible due to a breach of trust, it is the best way to start over. The learning pattern for overcoming the syndrome involves seeing the consequences, being aware of who was responsible and changing whatever caused the reprehensible vengeful behaviour.

It should not be ruled out that Othello bosses, after seeing the negative effect of their jealous behaviour, may repent, just as the Shakespearean character does.

This pattern also applies to subordinates who are the object of the Othello boss’s jealousy: they should conduct a self-analysis of their behaviour and ask others to give their opinion, as they may discover they were consciously or unconsciously the cause of the jealousy and can therefore take the appropriate steps to prevent it in the future.

This requires taking a step back and looking at the problem from the outside. This may not always be possible, but without a change in perspective it will rarely be addressed correctly. The opinion of a third party with life experience and affection for the person who is suffering the situation is often very helpful. This task can be performed by a good mentor or coach.


Humility and Generosity: Antidotes for Jealousy
Humility is increasingly important for leadership in the global world of complex organisations (Owens and Hekman).4 To be humble, it is necessary to get to know oneself, i.e., to be aware of one’s limitations: accepting what one knows and is capable of and, above all, acknowledging what ones does not know and is not capable of. Humble managers are not only immune to jealousy, but are actually proud of the success of their employees. They do not think they have reached the summit of anything nor are they blinded by how much they still need to accomplish to become a better manager and, ultimately, a better individual; nor are they saddened if others have progressed further than them.

Having a competent and humble leader, which is very different from having a pusillanimous and weak one, is one of the best tools for promoting people’s talent. Humility is necessary not only in the leader, but in all members of a company. It endows realism, which is precisely the key feature needed to analyse the situation and understand the position of a manager who has a jealous boss.

Generosity, which leads us to prioritise the wellbeing of others, lays the moral foundation that, along with humility, allows for the professional development of employees.

The responsibility of senior management is twofold: they need to be humble themselves and to develop leaders who are also humble. There may not be a better antidote against such a human and understandable passion as jealousy.

On the other hand, the virtue of generosity, which leads us to prioritise the wellbeing of others ahead of our own, lays the moral foundation that, along with humility, allows for the professional development of employees. To promote growth among the people we manage, they must become the priority of our action. Generosity enables managers to go beyond the formal exercise of their power, the efficiency of the required business results and the superficial chemistry that results from satisfying the desires of others, and leads to the sacrificed delivery of setting a good example. The response is the respect and trust of employees: respect for what managers do for their companies and trust in what managers do for them. There is no longer a place for jealousy to thrive.

People are managed, influenced or supported the way they are, not the way they should be. Here are some thoughts that may give a clue as to how to deal with one’s own jealousy and that of others:

• Great people make listening a priority; petty people tend to monopolise the conversation.
• The most important thing in communication is hearing what has not been said.
• Remember that it is not what you say, but what the other person hears.
• Leadership has less to do with position and more to do with disposition.
• People are more likely to change as a result of observation than of argumentation.
• When we really understand the point of view of others and what they are trying to do, we see that nine out of ten times they are right.
• The secret to getting something we want is to disregard it. Quite often, we cannot find something when we look for it and then unexpectedly come across it later on.
• To become an exceptional person, you must begin by considering yourself unexceptional.

About the Authors

José Ramón Pin is professor at IESE Business School in the Department of Managing People in Organizations, director of IRCO (The International Research Center on Organizations) and holds the José Felipe Bertrán Chair of Governance and Leadership in Public Administration. His bookConsistency: The Key to Managing People in Organizations is published by Pearson Educación S.A. His areas of interest include the development of management skills, capacity and careers and the relationship between ethics and management processes.

Guido Stein is associate professor at IESE Business School in the Department of Managing People in Organizations. He is partner of Inicia Corporate (M&A and Corporate Finance) and a consultant with firms in diverse sectors such as finance, industry, energy and professional services. His recent book is Managing People and Organizations: Peter Drucker’s Legacy. His current research focuses on undesirable turnover in top management, power and taking- charge processes.


1. Liu, D., Liao, H. and Loi, R. (2012). “The dark side of leadership: A three-level investigation of the cascading effect of abusive supervision on employee creativity,” Academy of Management Journal, 55, 5, pp. 1187-1212.

2. Maslow, H. A. (1991). Motivation and Personality, Díaz de Santos, Madrid. (1998) Maslow on management, Wiley, New York.

3. Eldelberg, S. G. “Envidia y celos en el trabajo,” a note by INCAE Business School.

4. Owens, P. B., and Hekman, R. D. (2012). “Modeling how to grow: An inductive examination of humble leader behaviours, contingencies, and outcomes,” Academy of Management Journal, 55, 4, pp. 787-818.

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