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Caution emotion at work: 4) envy

January 25, 2018

This is the final article in my series on emotion at work and this time I’m tackling the one that rarely gets talked about – envy, and its frequent companion, resentment. envy-colleagueWhereas feeling anxious or angry is seen as fairly normal at work, envy seems to be more of a shameful secret. After all, if you’re envious it means someone else has something you want but don’t have. It could be something tangible, like a promotion or a business trip to the States, or it might be someone’s characteristics – maybe they’re smarter, more attractive or more popular than you. Or even worse, all three. These are not things we feel comfortable acknowledging, as there’s a vulnerability there, and yet I suspect many workplaces are seething with envy. So here are five tips for handling your own envy, followed by some ideas on how to handle envious colleagues.

Handling your own green-eyed monster

1. Acknowledge how you feel

Stop telling yourself you don’t feel jealous or you shouldn’t feel jealous. You’re human, it’s how you feel. As with the other emotions I’ve discussed, treat it as data and work out what it’s telling you. Accept that there’s a degree of vulnerability in being envious – you’re in a one-down position, something is missing in your life. It’s OK not to feel great about that.

2. Get a reality check

This is particularly important for those situations where someone else has got an opportunity, e.g. promotion, that you wanted. Something I’ve heard often is “They’ve just got the gift of the gab. I’m a better programmer/lawyer/accountant”. What’s missing here is a recognition that, once you reach a certain level, your technical or professional skill is not enough. To be successful in the role you need the inter-personal and influencing skills that you may be dismissing as just talk. This may be time to take stock and work out how you can develop these skills in yourself rather than seeing them as window dressing. On the other hand, if you genuinely come to the conclusion that no one gets on in your organisation unless they went to the right school or they play golf with the MD, then may I refer you back to the article about anger.

3. Accept that the world’s not fair

Don’t shoot the messenger but there will always be people who are more attractive, more successful, more popular, wealthier than you. There’s no point railing against it. Without wanting to sound like a cheesy motivational speaker, all you can do is aim to be the best version of you that you can be. Resist turning envy into resentment. The person who got that promotion you really wanted hasn’t done anything wrong. That colleague who’s smart and good looking is just lucky. Psychologists distinguish between benign envy and malicious envy; the former focuses on the thing you don’t have and how you might get it, the latter focuses on the person who’s got what you want and can lead you to want to bring them down a peg or two. Only malicious envy leads to schadenfreude.

4. Appreciate what you’ve got

There is sound evidence that actively appreciating and expressing gratitude for what we have makes us happier and even healthier. By all means strive for more, but don’t take for granted what you already have. No matter what your circumstances, you are almost certainly luckier than most of the people who have ever lived, simply by virtue of living in a prosperous country with access to antibiotics, reliable contraception, abundant food, central heating and modern dentistry. Envy comes from focusing too much on what’s missing. Shifting your focus to what’s not missing may lessen its sting.

5. Don’t judge your inside against someone else’s outside

You have unique access to your own shortcomings, your insecurities and anxieties, boredom and failures. You don’t always see other people’s, particularly in this social media age where people present all the fabulous bits of their lives – the holidays, the cocktails, the #feelingblessed moments – and pretend the rest doesn’t exist. For all you know that spectacularly successful colleague may be struggling to hold his marriage together. That beautiful, talented, charming new trainee may have an eating disorder. You can’t know everything that’s going on in other people’s lives or their heads. Don’t assume other people’s lives are golden if yours feels black and white.

Handling someone else’s envy

If someone envies you

If you get the sense that one of your colleagues envies you, you have to tread a fine line – don’t apologise, but don’t flaunt it. Suppose you’ve been given some amazing opportunity and they haven’t. There’s no reason for you to be embarrassed or apologetic but it pays to be sensitive about how – and how much – you talk about it when they’re around. If it feels appropriate, address the issue with them – “I think it might be awkward that I got this opportunity rather than you but I don’t want that to get in the way of us working together”. Obviously this only applies to something extrinsic – something given to you – not one of your intrinsic characteristics. There are no circumstances where “It seems a little awkward that I’m so much better looking than you” is going to be well-received.

If people envy you because your life seems to be so perfect, then showing a bit of genuine vulnerability can make you a more relatable human being. Admit you’re nervous about a presentation, ask for help with something.

If you’re the boss and there’s envy in the team

Try not to inadvertently create situations where envy and resentment might fester. It’s likely that you’ll like some of your staff more than others and that some will be superstars while others are plodders, but be careful how you distribute opportunity among the team. Things people might see as giving others an advantage include working on innovative projects, access to training or coaching, trips abroad, deputising for you, presenting to senior managers. Make sure your criteria for deciding who gets to do what are fair and transparent.  If you have a high-flyer in your team whom others envy, make sure you are appreciative of the contribution made by everyone else.

If you’d like some support managing emotion in the workplace, I’d be happy to have a chat: caroline@carolinegourlay.co.uk

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2 Comments
  1. Great article Caroline.
    From an organisation’s perspective, I picked up on the importance of a fair and transparent performance management system.
    Clear objectives, monitoring, feedback and development plans (if done well), should help reduce envy at its roots.

    • Thanks John. I don’t think an organisation can ever really stop envy but if things are fair then at least there should be more benign envy (how can I get there too) rather than malicious envy (I’ll make that guy’s life hell now).

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