Two Faces of Envy in Workplace– Destructive & Competitive: Menacing, Motivating, Managing… or Stimulus to Excel

“While it is impossible for a leader to eradicate ‘envy’ from the workplace; however, there is much a leader can do to create an environment that minimizes its occurrence.”

Envy: He has it; I want it… If I can’t have it, nobody can. Envy is not only felt for material possessions, but more often we envy people who are well regarded, admired, influential, and successful. We wish we had their stature. Envy (Wikipedia) is best defined as a ‘resentful emotion’ that occurs when a person lacks another’s (perceived) superior quality, achievement, or possession and either desires it or wishes that the other lacked it.

‘Envy’ in the workplace damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines organizational performance. Most of all, it harms the one who feels it. When you’re obsessed with someone else’s success, your self-respect suffers, and you may neglect or even sabotage your own performance and possibly your career.

In the article “Envy at Work” by Tanya Menon, Leigh Thompson write: Comparing yourself with successful coworkers can be motivating, but it can also trigger ‘envy’. The authors’ research suggests that such feelings may cause real damage, both to your own career and to your organization’s success. Denying or concealing envy makes the problem worse.

Over the past 10 years, we have studied hundreds of executives and their organizations in an effort to discover what role this deadly sin plays in the workplace. We have found that regardless of the economic climate, people at all levels of a firm are vulnerable to envy. Envy is difficult to manage, in part because it’s hard to admit that we harbor such a socially unacceptable emotion.

In the course of our research, we’ve found that it is possible to prevent yourself from being consumed by ‘envy’ and even to harness it to your advantage with positive actions, such as; recognize potentially destructive thoughts and behaviors; refocus them into more generous and productive ones. Make yourself more open to others; more receptive to change and more fulfilled at work.

Envy has sometimes been described as a social microscope, for example;  When others succeed in the workplace it bothers you, you become ruminative. You obsess over interactions with rivals, compare your rewards, and over-analyze even the fleeting praise the boss bestows on others. Some people become so fixated on a rival that they lose their focus on their own performance…

In the article “The Psychology of Zero-Sum” by Richard Landes writes:  One of the most difficult aspects of an ‘honor-shame’ culture is the way in which we tend to view the world as ‘limited good’. Therefore, all transactions and developments are seen as a ‘zero-sum game’ in which, when someone else wins, I lose; and when I win, someone else must lose. ‘Zero-sum’ attitudes have a close relationship to ‘envy’; if someone’s success necessarily diminishes others, then any success will elicit ‘envy’ and, in many cases, mobilize forces to bring down the haughty ones.

‘Envy’ is a pervasive element of the human psyche and of human societies. The evidence suggests that cultures that take envy as an inevitable and pervasive part of their lives produce societies of ‘limited good’. By contrast cultures that resist envy, even in relatively small but significant amounts, become wealth producing nations. When ‘envy’ dominates a culture, its members mobilize against success. As the saying goes, ‘the higher up the pole you get, the more your ass is visible’. On the contrary, when people can tolerate success by others, even rejoice in the success of others, you have conditions for economic development…

In an article by researchers, Niels van de Ven, Marcel Zeelenberg, and Rik Pieters, at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, they made some important discoveries about the motivations that result from different kinds of ‘envy’. Two types of ‘envy’ exist: benign and malicious”, the authors explain.Benign’ envy exists if the advantage of the other person is ‘deserved’ and motivates people to attain a coveted product or position for themselves.

This more motivating type of envy makes people pay an ‘envy’ premium for the products that elicited their envy. On the other hand, ‘malicious’ envy occurs if the other person is thought to be ‘un-deserving’; it evokes a desire to ‘pull down’ the other person. In a series of experiments, the authors compared ‘benign’ envy with its ‘malicious’ cousin. They found that only benignly envious people were willing to pay more for products that they coveted.

Maliciously envious people were more likely to pay more for related but different competitive products. For example, people who felt maliciously envious of someone with an iPhone were more likely to pay more for a BlackBerry. In the experiments (which involved potential internships as well as products like iPhones),  participants were asked to imagine feeling ‘envious and admiration’ for the fellow student (‘benign’ envy condition), to imagine feeling ‘envious and begrudging’ (the ‘malicious’ envy condition), or just to imagine that they really liked the product (‘control’ condition).

Companies should be cautious not to evoke the more negative form of envy that drives people away from their products. “Advertisers should make sure that the celebrities they want to use in their ads actually deserve their status,” the authors write. “If they do not, these celebrities might actually trigger malicious envy and drive the sales to a competitor’s product”.

In the article “Envy in the Workplace: Jealous Guise” by Hilary Osborne writes: Allowing envious feelings towards colleagues to take over ones life could be disastrous for your career. Researcher Tanya Menon, University of Chicago, along with fellow professor Leigh Thompson, have spent 10 years studying what happens when ‘envy’ – defined by the Oxford Concise Dictionary as ‘discontented or resentful longing aroused by another’s possessions, qualities or luck’ – occurs in the workplace. They found evidence that ‘envy’ can be a real issue for both employers and employees, dividing workforces and distracting people from the jobs they want and are paid to do.

Although envy is an emotional response, our research shows how it can have real financial consequences, Menon says. Ben Williams, psychologist, says envy is “usually aggravated by low esteem or a lack of assertiveness“. When a colleague has something we want – a better job title, pay packet or perk…

instead of feeling pleased for them, or understanding why they are in a better position, we feel inferior and start to resent their success. Steve Williams says ‘envy’ can be “started or fired-up by a lack of opportunity – when people feel they are not being treated in the same way as their colleagues.”  

He suggests that transparency is the manager’s best defense. “Having fair, open processes for how people are given promotions and pay rises and allocated projects can go a long way to eliminating envy.”  Menon says companies should make sure they are not set-up in a way that feeds envy. “Even if people want to do the right thing and display their most generous sides, their organizations are implicitly, or even explicitly, rewarding them for pursuing status at the expense of others,” she says. Menon says she doesn’t think it is possible for organizations to stamp out envy from the human psyche, “but it is possible to manage it, and remove organizational incentives that encourage people to undermine as opposed to support talented co-workers.

When a problem arises between colleagues, Ben Williams says “don’t let it fester, otherwise they become a magnet for other disharmony in the workforce.”  Steve Williams suggests that “to some degree a form of envy is a motivational thing. You see something you want and it drives you to work harder”.

But Menon disagrees “whereas, competition involves wanting to outdo the other person, envy is wanting what the other person has, wanting to take it away, and even wanting to see the person ruined,” she says. “Competition and social comparison can both have advantages: people can be motivated to do better, improve themselves and their organizations when they see talented competitors. However, if they channel their response towards envying others, I don’t see many positive consequences”…

‘Envy’ in the workplace isn’t pretty even on a good day; news of someone else’s good fortune can send us spiraling into a pit of bitter accusations and weak self-righteousness. It poisons our confidence and undermines our sense of worth. Given enough energy, envy can balloon into outright hate. But facing this ‘green-eyed monster’, looking it in the eye without flinching, can tell you powerful things about yourself; what you really want and what you need to change. Seen this way, envy is information.

It points us to the good, and the belief that good or excellence is within our reach. Of all the negative character traits, envy is the only one with a redeeming factor. A healthy dose of ‘envy’ is even good – think of it as fuel to drive your way to success or contentment. Take heart, it’s perfectly normal for people to look at others and wish to have what they have.

The trick is to use that ‘envy’ to better your situation instead of using it to fuel your hate.  In business, for example – the negative way is to start bad-mouthing your colleagues, manager, or the company. The positive way is to observe, learn, and apply the way the other people work to your own advantage.

You benefit, and your group gets a more positive outcome; its win-win.  Act positive and you can have what they have, and maybe more. ‘Envy’ is a double-edge sword – choose to wield it for the better…

“Envy comes from people’s ignorance of, or lack of belief in, their own gifts.” ~Jean Vanier