Why not me? Reflections on Workplace Envy

By Dr Amal Ahmadi

“Who’s living the best life”

I was watching an episode of “Friends from College”, where a close-knit group of friends reconnects twenty years after graduation. The episode unravels how excitement over the reunion quickly turns into envy and distress as the friends begin to brag and talk over each other to win the “who’s living the best life” battle. Why do we often compare ourselves with others?

In a workplace context, think about a coworker with whom you often compare yourself. Now think about one of this coworker’s recent achievements. How did it make you feel? Envy may be a natural emotional response to other people’s accomplishments. Whilst envy could be motivational in driving us to raise the bar and work harder, it could also have negative impacts for the envious, the envied, and the organisation. We may make ourselves feel better by downplaying the accomplishments of others, thinking ‘they just got lucky’. We may also unintentionally undermine the organisation’s fairness and legitimacy, thinking ‘well, they must be the boss’ favourite’.

Envy in the Workplace

A simple dictionary search presents envy as “a feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else’s possessions, qualities, or luck” and “the desire to have a quality, possession, or other desirable thing belonging to someone else” (Oxford Dictionaries, 2019). Applied to the workplace, this definition might carry two underlying assumptions: (1) that employees may be involved in competition and/or social comparison; and (2) that an employee negatively reacts to another employee’s celebrated achievements. Let’s take a moment to disregard these assumptions and imagine an organisation with infinite resources, where everyone got along and had equal opportunity. Could coworkers be happy for each other?

Ganegoda and Bordia (2018) introduce the concept of positive empathy as one’s positive reaction to another’s positive experiences. They distinguish between positive empathy and benign envy. Benign envy, as opposed to malicious envy, is free from hostile feelings toward the envied individual and rather associated with a motivation to learn from the envied, and a desire to improve and rise to the standard of the object of envy. They argue that while benign envy stems from negative social comparisons, positive empathy does not involve feelings of inferiority. Thus, they mark benign envy and positive empathy with pain and happiness respectively.     

I invite you to rethink any existing reward and recognition practices in your organisation. Do they encourage social comparisons? Is one person’s gain another person’s loss? At the collective level, how can we foster a culture of shared values and collective identity so that one person’s win is everybody’s win? And at the individual, when thinking ‘why not me?’ how can we pinpoint triggers of our envy and discover our own insecurities or weaknesses? How can we learn from other people’s successes, admire them as role models, and look inward to focus on our own progress?

Perhaps individuals and organisations could harness this potentially harmful emotion and channel it toward more positive individual and collective accomplishments.

References

Ganegoda, D. B., & Bordia, P. 2018. I Can Be Happy for You, but Not All the Time: A Contingency Model of Envy and Positive Empathy in the Workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology.

Oxford Dictionaries. 2019. Envy. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/envy

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