Envy at the Office
Envy is a complicated emotion, in part because it involves not just the way we feel about others, but our own deeply-held insecurities. Although we may have outgrown our junior-high self-doubt long ago, the grown-up versions of envy often play out in the workplace. In her research on the topic, Tanya Menon, an associate professor of management and human resources at the Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University has found that being on either end of envy at the office (whether you’re the envier or the envied) comes with a devastating psychological cost. What’s more, workplace envy holds back the organization as a whole, and even hurts the bottom line. Curtailing envy is one way that companies can save money, Menon explains in her new book with co-author and longtime research partner Leigh Thompson—titled Stop Spending, Start Managing: Strategies to Transform Wasteful Habits. Below, Menon talks about what causes envy to spike, what we can do about it when it surfaces, and how we can avoid its downward spiral by fostering healthy levels of competition and collaboration in the office.
A Q&A with Tanya Menon, Ph.D.
How do you define envy in the workplace?
To get to the heart of what envy is, we have to parse between what’s often a cocktail of related psychological reactions. They’re often hard to tease apart, but it’s important to differentiate them, because it will help you to know and manage your emotions.
Let’s start with social comparison, which is simply evaluating where we stand relative to others. For instance, you might evaluate yourself relative to a sales colleague who has sold more than you (upward comparison) versus one who has sold less (downward comparison). Upward comparisons are often psychologically painful, but they motivate us to do better. Downward comparisons can make us feel content with our own lot—but they don’t necessarily motivate us to improve.
Then there’s admiration—observing a co-worker’s successes and feeling positively about them. Think role models here. A key thing that determines whether admiration is motivating is whether you believe that you could also attain the success of the person you’re admiring. So, I’m a tennis player and I really look up to Serena Williams. But because I’m not a Wimbledon contender, watching Serena doesn’t necessarily motivate me to improve my serve.
Competition comes up in situations where you’re fighting to win—think your weekly tennis partner or the salesperson you’re trying to beat for a bonus. And rivals are those competitors who are particularly significant in your life (e.g. Federer versus Nadal).
People rarely differentiate between jealousy and envy, but the two concepts are quite different for psychologists. Jealousy is about losing what you already have—a valued person for instance—to a third party. So think triad: Your mother seems more affectionate to another sibling, or a romantic partner praises another person. At work, jealousy might emerge if a boss seems to favor a coworker, or if someone is “territorial.”
In contrast, envy is about dyads—you resent what another person (or group) has. The German word Schadenfreude perfectly describes what envious people experience—they are happy when the other person suffers. The writer Helmut Schoeck famously described it this way: “The envious man thinks that if his neighbor breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself.” A lot of my work on envy in the workplace with Professor Leigh Thompson has focused on how people feel threatened by successful coworkers who generate new ideas.
How common is envy in the workplace?
People rarely admit to being envious, but it’s pervasive. It’s hard to study envy when you ask people, “Tell me about a time when you were envious of someone.” (Leigh Thompson and I wrote an article about this titled, “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful.”) But ask someone: “Tell me about a time someone else was envious of you,” and the world of envy appears! We believe that we’re simply not threatened by others—while others are, of course, threatened by our own beauty, skills, and talents. It’s easy to see envious behaviors in others, but we revile it in ourselves—it’s one of the deadly sins after all. So we rarely acknowledge and discuss our own envy.
But we’re forced to grapple with envy even more these days, as cultural shifts have normalized “oversharing” and “self-promotion.” And social media offers people a megaphone to broadcast this bragfest. On Facebook, people are posting the most carefully selected, filtered, flattering photos that chronicle their promotions at work, fabulous parties, genius children, and luxury vacations. (Alongside, perhaps a “humblebrag”: Exhausted from the flight back from Davos. Panicking about delivering my TED talk tomorrow!) People who immerse themselves in social media can’t help but compare their own real lives to these Photoshopped lives, and they feel unhappier—and sometimes envious too.
What causes us to be envious—is it different for men and women?
People always ask me whether women are more envious than men. Research shows men and women are equally envious, but they tend to be envious for different reasons: Both genders feel envious about physical attributes—women about youth and beauty, men about athletic builds. Men feel envious of men who have beautiful partners. Women are envious of women who are high status and intelligent. (Women are also more likely to be envious of family members than men.) What makes envy especially tough on women is that we’ve been conditioned to suppress our competitive impulses. Also, athletic play in childhood allows children to practice getting comfortable with seeing winners and losers, and outcomes that aren’t necessarily egalitarian, and boys are traditionally exposed to more athletic play.
Regardless of our gender, envy is fundamentally about our own insecurities, so the causes can be varied. We feel less than someone else, a true form of self-hatred. Interestingly, psychologists have often connected narcissists with feelings of envy—those who, on the surface at least, appear to have the most “self love.” But more recent research differentiates between “grandiose narcissists,” who actually buy into their presumed superiority, and “vulnerable narcissists,” those with low self-esteem, who are too insecure to truly believe their own delusions—and therefore are especially prone to envy.
Who are we most envious of?
The people who trigger our envy are those who excel in dimensions that we value in ourselves. So, if I can’t sing opera, it’s irrelevant to me that you can, and indeed I may even bask in the reflected glory. (“My best friend is singing at the Met tonight” means: I must be pretty cool to have attracted such a talented friend.) But, if I’m proud of my career achievement and you’ve just gotten promoted, this triggers my envy.
Envy is local. This is the super-ugly aspect of envy: People feel especially envious of those who they are closest to: best friends, siblings, the coworker in the next office. We don’t care if the Rockefellers have millions, but we care if the neighbor who we constantly socialize with has the fancy pool in the backyard, or if a coworker in the next office just got $1,000 more in bonus—that’s what stings.
(Although, because of cultural shifts these days, people are now also experiencing envy—and schadenfreude—toward celebrities, because people form quasi-personal relationships with them based on pseudo “interactions” and “relationships” online.)
In what ways can envy be detrimental on an individual level?
My work with Leigh suggests that a key problem lies in the fact that people don’t recognize their feelings of envy. Few people have the courage to say, “I’m envious of Jane because I’m completely inadequate relative to her at this job.” They instead perform all kinds of mental gymnastics to attempt to feel superior to her. So, they might make passive-aggressive jokes and insults to demean her (“Ms. Lean-In is lucky she’s got nothing else to do but work”). Or, they might more directly fault-find—behind her back or publicly—about Jane’s work (“Sure, Jane has some fancy credentials, but if you look closely at the work, it’s actually low quality”); her character (“Jane’s completely arrogant and cutthroat”); and the fairness of Jane’s situation (“Jane’s in with the boss”). Even if they achieve this complete inversion, convincing themselves that the person who makes them feel badly about themselves is less good and less deserving, all of these mental gymnastics are taxing. They know, in the back of their minds, that Jane is a star. They get angry, hostile, self-hating, and other-focused—instead of directly confronting the true issues, which lie within themselves and their own reactions.
From an individual point of view, the most malignant aspects of envy exact a steep cost. There’s a saying that envy is like a microscope—we become consumed by small differences in what another person has or gets. Looking into this microscope, we also see our lowest, smallest selves. We lose touch with our mental telescope—the ability to see the big picture—and our best, most generous selves. As we’re being personally consumed by focusing on this other person, we’re not learning, improving, or being inspired. But simply surfacing those feelings and acknowledging, “Jane has some great talents at this job,” and congratulating her, lightens this psychological load instantly.
Some research, though, finds that envy can be motivating if it’s “benign” envy (“I wished I was as good”), as opposed to “malignant” envy (“I hope something bad befalls the other person”). But I’m not sure if benign envy is envy at all: It’s less about resentment and more about inspiration—and most definitions of envy feature resentment front and center.
Obviously, there are severe costs for the person who is the target of envy, too. In research with Oliver Sheldon and Adam Galinsky, we drew upon the phenomenon of the “Evil Eye.” In cultures such as India and the Middle East, boasting about your wealth has been seen as dangerous because it attracts the evil eye—other people’s compliments but also their resentment. In the modern workplace, the “ratebuster”—the one who sells more, writes more, or earns more—suffers bullying and resentment.
So, it’s stressful and psychologically exhausting whether you’re the envier or the envied, worrying who’s got more, or who’s going to stick the knife in your back because you’ve got more.
What kind of impact does envy have at an organizational level?
Envy often creates a perfect storm of waste. Leigh and I call it the “Winner’s Trap.” People like to be winners, and many of us Type A’s are great competitors who quickly rise to the top in competitive situations. But envy can be a part of these competitive dynamics—causing us to squander knowledge from people we should be learning from. In our research with Hoon Seok Choi, we found that people who feel threatened devalue their internal coworkers’ knowledge, while shelling out big cash to learn that same information from outsiders such as competitors or consultants. Focusing on destroying the person in the next office makes us weaker in the face of external competitors in the marketplace. Anyone who’s been in an organization where there’s constant in-fighting, comparisons about everything—salary, promotions, attention, job assignments—knows that these dynamics work to make the whole far less than the sum of its parts.
How do we curtail our own envy at work?
The antonymn of schadenfreude is a Sanskrit word, mudita: feeling joy at another’s happiness. A critical aspect of Buddhism, achieving mudita is about finding your most generous self. Perhaps, looking at the cutthroat people in your hyper-competitive work place, mudita initially seems like a pipe dream. But even if it’s hard to feel happy when certain people succeed, there are ways to at least work through envy:
We’ve said envy stems from our feelings of inferiority; to manage envy, we’ve got to take control of those feelings. I love a word that’s recently emerged in psychology: self-compassion. This is not self-esteem, or saying how great you are. It’s about being kind to yourself—rather than beating yourself up for perceived failures and inadequacies.
In my research with Leigh and Hoon Seok Choi, we found that giving people an opportunity to be self-compassionate created a sea-change in their responses to a highly successful coworker. Before we had them react to a highly successful coworker’s ideas, we allowed them to self-affirm by writing about their own values and positive attributes. By simply affirming themselves beforehand, people were more willing to celebrate their coworkers’ knowledge. When we recognize our own values and domains of expertise, we can conquer otherwise consuming feelings of resentment about others and their successes.
Rather than thinking about whether competition, envy, or any of these feelings are good or bad, first try to gain the self-knowledge—and self-compassion—to recognize them without judging them. Ask yourself whether your reactions to a person or situation are making you a bigger person or a smaller person. Are you feeding your small self with negativity by constantly ruminating about the person and the situation, or are your feeding your larger self by improving your own talents and ability to compete? And if you find that your reactions are corrosive, try to relabel or redirect them. Maybe it is envy you’re feeling—but can you turn it into inspiration and motivation? Simply recognizing and reframing emotions is a powerful way to manage them.
Does research show that there are benefits to competition in the workplace?
Absolutely. In our book, when Leigh and I talk about the Winner’s Trap, and indeed the corrosive envy that can come along with it, our message is not to squash your competitive impulses in favor of becoming the cooperative worker bee who mindlessly follows the hive. When we lean too far in the direction of cooperation we fall into what we call the “Agreement Trap”—and we become very nice groupthinkers. In these situations, we’re overly P.C., silencing people who say things that may be threatening and challenging, and there is no creative tension. Competition hones our motivation, focus, and drive to improve, and when we’re comfortable standing out as individualists, we’re also often more creative.
What are good ways to cultivate healthy levels of competition?
The worst things companies can do is pay lip service to cooperation, saying, “We want team players,” and then actually reward the “me-first” behaviors. A good approach is to be clear about the lines of the playing field and help people know when to compete and how to compete. Here’s one example: Electronic Arts, a video game production company, assigns people into two teams during the product design process—the budget team and the creative team. They structurally design a situation where there’s constructive task conflict. And because it’s an assigned role, it helps ensure task conflict doesn’t seep into relationship conflict. It’s easier to make a charitable attribution for critical comments: “It wasn’t anything personal when she cut down my idea—she was on the budget team.”
And when companies reward winners of competition, the best prizes aren’t about money, which is zero-sum (your win is my loss and vice versa). A better prize is something social, creative, and relationship-building: dinner with the CEO or attending a sporting event with one’s colleagues. The idea is to let people compete, give them bragging rights, and also find ways to cool off and let people come back together too. It’s also helpful to mix up teams (cross-departmental teams that are diverse on gender/race/rank) to avoid polarizing rivalries.
How can employers/managers/leaders foster collaboration and mitigate incidences of envy?
One key is to help people appreciate each other’s contributions. The microscope we use in comparisons is also an egocentric one. We are really good at tracking what others get—we’re much less able and motivated to recognize what others are contributing. So, we notice a fellow employee’s promotion—we don’t see the thousands of extra hours she contributed to make the project a success.
Another aspect is helping people see how surrounding yourself with stars is what allows you to learn, grow, and improve. Leigh has been my collaborator for fifteen years–she’s an international champion in cycling and she’s written countless articles and books, and she’s also 6’3. I’m 5’8 (on a good day)—I’d never let anyone take a picture of me standing next to her because I’d look like an elf. And when I introduced her to my husband, I begged him—please don’t compare us! But at the end of the day, there is tremendous upside in being around excellent people who push you to be your best. And the funny thing is, it’s actually far easier being around these busy, focused, driven superstars than being around people who have few achievements, feel insecure, and resent you for your accomplishments!