Never Have I Ever… Felt Envious at Work
Nowadays we are instantaneously reminded that some of our colleagues are more fortunate than us based on their impressive LinkedIn headlines, more followers on Twitter, and jaw-dropping Instagram pictures. Social networking sites tell us when our co-workers get promotions and are enjoying better vacations than our own.
This has intensified anxiety about our own work status and produced “a perfect storm of organizational envy” (Menon & Thompson, 2010). Naturally, we compare ourselves to our colleagues. We might even resent the people we feel inferior to for what they have and what we desire (Carucci, 2019). Regardless of how successful we are, most of us know people who stack up better than we do.
What is Envy?
Envy, defined as “the aversion to unequal distributions of outcomes when the individual gets less than others”, is often born out of deep feelings of inadequacy. We want to close the gap between ourselves and the person we envy, by either depriving the others of their perceived advantages, or attempting to elevate ourselves (Yu et al., 2018). Envy signals a threat to our self-esteem and is associated with unhappiness (Espín et al., 2018). That is, it tells us that we are falling short relative to others (Yu et al., 2018) by painfully highlighting that we are inferior in the competition (Hill & Buss, 2006).
That’s why envious people tend to enter less social competition because they fear being outcompeted. Envy in its pathological case can lead to spitefulness (aka schadenfreude), when people don’t want to be outcompeted by others and at the same time want to be better off than others at any cost. Although envy is often portrayed as an antisocial emotion, when combined with other traits such as compassion, it can be seen as positive in the sense that within-group inequalities are limited by envious individuals who tend to be more egalitarian (Fehr & Schmidt, 1999). In fact, when there are unfair allocations of resources within a team, envious people can work as a force against it, thus spurring team cohesiveness.
How to Identify Envy in Yourself?
The key is to recognize the circumstances and qualities in others that trigger your envy. Ask yourself if your negative emotions such as envy reveal what you are most insecure about lacking (Menon & Thompson, 2010). Once you identify the root of your emotions, you can change how you act on them. Most people dismiss envy as a form of immature pettiness. That’s why it’s important not to downplay your envy as a “bad habit” (Carucci, 2019). When you accurately identify the things that set you off, you can try to tame envy before it turns into antisocial behavior. Learning how to “flip the script” will help you manage your envy when a similar situation arise in the future (Carucci, 2019).
Envy at the Workplace
Interpersonal relationships are the building blocks of organizational life, and employees’ reactions to one another’s successes have important implications for interpersonal relationships and organizations (Ganegoda & Bordia, 2019). It has been shown that the consequences of envy for organizational functioning can be destructive, including moral disengagement and social undermining, as well as victimization of high-performing employees.
No wonder that envy is by and large perceived as a negative emotion leading to antisocial behavior at a workplace. Although we are not used to talking about envy at work (Martinuzzi, 2019), it is one of the most powerful of all the disruptive emotions that affect our working environments. When you feel envy but fail to address it, you may soothe your ego for the moment, but over time, you will destroy team morale (Carucci, 2019). Instead you can channel your envy into productive ends if you think objectively about the source of your envy (Yu et al., 2018).
Envy vs. Team Performance Because organizations rely increasingly on work teams, individuals’ ability to function effectively in team environments has important implications for a company’s performance (Ganegoda & Bordia, 2019). When co-workers are envious, it’s toxic, because they create a culture in which putting others down builds themselves up.
Such organizational cultures, in which the success of others provokes envy instead of support, can be incredibly destructive (Carucci, 2019). According to a researcher Bruna Martinuzzi (2019), envy not only negatively impacts company cultures, it also damages team morale and, ultimately, leads to employee disengagement. It is no surprise, then, that the stronger the feelings of envy, the less dedicated and productive employees become (Carucci, 2019), and ultimately the team performance drops.
Envy and Leadership
What visibly sets leaders apart from their colleagues is often their better status and the higher salary that come with their role (Carucci, 2019). While it is impossible for leaders to eradicate being envied by their subordinates, there are many ways through which leaders can create a work environment that leads to behavior change and minimizes bad side effects of envy (Martinuzzi, 2019).
In fact, leaders have disproportionate influence over the emotional wellbeing of their team. In his research, Mark Stein (1997) suggests that when subordinates compare their status to what their leaders have, it evokes a sense of inferiority and even a desire to undermine their leader. This holds especially true when the envious employees depend on the leader for advancement.
When You Can’t Deny Your Human Nature
On a personal level, we’ve been taught that it’s shameful to be envious of others. We often try to deny feeling envious. But the reality is this “moral principle” sometimes runs against our human nature as it is hard to root for others without also thinking of ourselves (Ashkenas, 2013). Organizationally, we’ve been trained in the importance of teamwork, believing that when one of us succeeds, we all win.
The politically correct answer is that we’re supposed to feel grateful when our colleagues are successful, because it’s not only their personal victory but it also benefits the entire organization. So we should celebrate our colleagues’ success! Most of the time, we genuinely feel grateful for others but sometimes let’s admit it: “deep down, we feel envious, resentful” (Ashkenas, 2013), or even a little bit spiteful. Although envy is referred to as a natural and automatic emotion (Menon & Thompson, 2010), Behave4’s research has shown that it is controllable.
Comparing yourself with others is natural and can be motivational. However, too much of it leads to envy, especially if you’re ungenerous toward yourself. Luckily, it is attainable to nurture more generosity and replace envy with more prosocial behavioral habits (Menon & Thompson, 2010).
Envy – How can HR managers cope with it?
Reducing employees’ malicious envy, or spitefulness, is an important yet almost impossible step to take by HR managers, because feeling envious often happens automatically and cannot be directly controlled. However, HR Managers can do more in the way of improving employees’ reactions to their colleagues’ positive outcomes, in particular by nurturing altruism, for example by “strengthening the sense of collective identity within a workgroup through team-building exercises, social events that emphasize shared values, and organizational routines” (Ganegoda & Bordia, 2019).
When employees are feeling envious, instead of making it a taboo subject, open communication will allow them to gain an objective perspective on the situation, neutralizing irrational behavioral outcomes. The next time your employees fall short of the achievements of others, turn their attention back to themselves rather than let them “lingering in unhealthy comparison” (Carucci, 2019). But, remember, envy can also have a positive side!
Is Envy Always Bad?
HR literature has traditionally viewed envy as an undesirable workplace emotion (Menon & Thompson, 2010) with negative outcomes for both enviers and their targets. Envy damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines organizational performance. Most of all, it harms the one who feels it.
Without doubt, envy, particularly spitefulness, has a dark side because it evokes desires to undermine envied targets. Yet, simultaneously envious employees can capitalize on envy for their own job improvement (Lee & Duffy, 2019). For example, by measuring their present selves against their past selves, which is called self-competition. By competing with themselves, they can suppress feeling envious into improving their job performance. Besides, envious people support more resource redistribution (Sznycer at al., 2017), which can improve cohesiveness within their team.
This shows that the unpleasant emotion of envy could actually lead to different behaviors – it is all how people act on their emotions. That is another reason why behavioral assessments are much more impactful in their predictive power of employee performance than standard personality tests: nobody wants to self-report they are envious. Most of the time there’s nothing wrong with feeling a tiny bit envious, especially when it inspires us to work harder and improve our own performance. But there are instances when these deep-seated emotions can lead to dysfunctional behaviors (Ashkenas, 2013).
The (dis-)functionality of any given emotion such as envy is not given but depends on how individuals “perceive the social context by assessing their concerns and goals in relation to those of others and regulating their responses” (Fischer & Manstead, 2008). Envy may generate different behavioral patterns, it cannot be easily aligned with a single behavior and that’s why it’s important to assess not only whether individuals score low on high on envy but also how it is in relation to other behavioral preferences such as compassion.
Compassion and envy may have evolved in response to different adaptive problems and have different behavioral outputs (Sznycer et al., 2017). In the business literature compassion is often confounded with kindness. However, Behave4’s definition is very clear and formal – suffering for worse-off others, a natural antidote for feeling envious or spiteful.
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