As you enter your recently promoted colleague’s office, you notice a picture of his beautiful family in their new vacation home. He casually adjusts his custom suit and mentions his upcoming board meeting and speech in Davos. On one hand, you want to feel genuinely happy for him and celebrate his successes. On the other, you hope he falls into a crevasse in the Alps.
Professors Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson write in the Harvard Business Review
that envy can be particularly harmful in an organizational context: it damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines overall performance.
One reason for this is that people tend to distance themselves from those they envy. While friendly competitors challenge each other, people who are envious have difficulty learning from and collaborating with other people, which can lead to dysfunction and oversights.
Menon and Thompson came across the following examples in their research:
- At one technology company, managers who felt threatened by another group’s idea simply ignored it.
- In an investment bank, a senior banker was so envious of a colleague’s position and power that instead of talking to that colleague directly, he communicated through a go-between.
But as Menon and Thompson point out, envy is most harmful to the person 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.”
They acknowledge that it is the rare person whose automatic response is to feel glad when they meet someone better looking, richer, or smarter.
However, it is possible to “quiet the cruel voice of envy.”
Menon and Thompson have found that the following 2 techniques help people replace their envy with more productive habits of mind:
1. Use envy as a tool for self-improvement: Identify those circumstances and qualities in others that trigger your envy, and then ask yourself if your feelings reveal insecurities about what you’re lacking. For example: Do you envy people who learn new skills more quickly, make more money, or receive more praise and recognition?
You can then begin to tame envious feelings before they turn into counterproductive responses, and use those triggers to pinpoint areas for self-improvement.
2. Focus on your own progress: Comparing yourself to other people can be motivational, but taken too far it can lead to envy. Instead, compare your present self to your past self. Mapping the details of your own progress over time can increase your self-confidence, and help to reduce your resentment of others.