December 12, 2017 | MANILA, PHILIPPINES

Using envy as a management virtue

Why do companies designate an “employee of the month” or a “star performer” if not to goad the also-rans to aim for the honor and benefits this bestows? Aren’t promotions and big bonuses too supposed to stoke jealousy from those who lose out?

Is envy a management tool for motivating laggards?

In his 2009 book, Logic of Life economist Tim Harford applies non-financial dimensions to make his points. He justifies the big gap between the top tier management, most especially the CEO and his ExCom, and the clerical masses below as a case for dangling envy as incentive (or inspiration) for others to strive to get to the top and join the fat cats. Harford notes that executive compensation has little to do with contribution to the bottom line. This is a fact already well-publicized in the 2008 hearings on the bailout funds for banks and the unconscionable executive pay for the banks then on the brink of collapse. How else can one explain fat bonuses in the midst of mounting losses and irrational risks taken by the bonus recipients?

Harford contends that exorbitant pay for senior executives spurs on the second tier to line up at the buffet table too. And the rules governing this contest for the top are what Harford calls “tournament rules.” One does not have to be the best to succeed, only to be a little better than the other candidates. And even here, the criteria for winning are pretty blurred and sometimes boil down to just being noticed a little more than one’s rivals.

Of course introducing new players from some other time zones throws the rules up in the air when you count the expat package unrelated to proven performance.

Harford looks for non-financial motivations too to find reasons underlying certain choices. To pick an egregious example (I’m not making this up), the rise of teenage oral sex does not lead him to think of a suddenly more promiscuous generation Z. He explains this disturbing rise as an option for safe sex, which avoids STD or the possibility of unwanted pregnancies, especially in States where abortion of under-aged minors requires parental consent. Bad breath is not communicable.

This trend of economists giving curious explanations to noneconomic phenomena aims to link previously unconnected dots as in an earlier 2005 book, Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner. This work, for one, links the Wade-Roe decision legalizing abortion to the decline of crime twenty years later with the snuffing of the lives of unborn criminals. Following this same logic, the authors explain the fall from power of an East European dictator after he encouraged young couples to have more babies who grew up later on to be street marchers seeking his ouster, unburdened as they were by fear of reprisal.

Now, back to envy as a management tool.

In Alain de Botton’s book (300 pages with many photos, 2009), The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, he examines different jobs like power distribution engineer, painter, and entrepreneur/inventor. The subject he finds most fascinating is career counseling.

His subject works from his home which has a poster quoting Abraham Maslow in his bathroom, not the hierarchy of needs for which this guru is famous, but something else -- “it is not normal to know what one wants. It is a rare and painful psychological achievement.” In dealing with a lawyer-client who seems dissatisfied with her lot, the career counselor asks her to list ten people that she envies. She is required to include at least four close friends or relatives in this list. The counselor concludes that envy can be a powerful tool to surface the attributes that one is secretly looking for in one’s life. Maybe it is wealth and power, or shorter hours. Sometimes, it’s just better clothes.

Envy has always lurked somewhere hidden in our thoughts. When we say we admire somebody and his success, deep down, what we are really saying is that we wish we were as successful as he.

Charles Dickens is said to have seen a mansion in Gad’s Hill in his poorer and younger days and wished that one day he would own it and live there. That day did come after his success as a popular novelist. Ambition may be nothing more than the distillation of envy with a helpful tinge of revenge.

Envy may be one of the seven deadly sins. But it also gives us a clue to what we truly want in life. We don’t always get it... but we keep trying.

A. R. Samson is chair and CEO of Touch DDB.