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That's not fair! Having Difficult Conversations









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How to deal with envy at work!

So your colleague has won a big contract, how does it make you feel?

What about when a colleague gets a promotion that you wanted?

Or a fellow director talks about how her division has made a 19% increase in profits while you are struggling to maintain your P&L account.

Do you feel happy for them or do you wish they were not doing as well?

What we are talking about here, is a feeling that most of us feel at some point envy or jealousy, not the most attractive trait of humanity.

Most cultures considered it a deadly sin and for good reasons; it destroys relationships, disrupts teams, increases turnover and stops people performing at a high level.  

It is an emotion that is not often discussed, is difficult to manage and research has tended to ignore its longer term consequences in the workplace.

However, researchers: John Veiga, David Baldridge, and Lívia Markóczy, from the Universities of Connecticut, Oregon and Texas have developed a new way to understand envy and manage its impact in the workplace. 

Why do we feel envious?

The researchers suggest that envy is triggered by a situation that brings on painful feelings that may not be understood initially. It’s then followed by social comparison (i.e., does the success of the other person threaten me?) and a memory of an existing schema (how we view things, i.e., does the other person’s success confirm my belief that some types of people are given more opportunities?) 

For example, if a colleague who gets promoted is seen as a friend of the boss, people who are envious will think the promotion was gained because of friendship with the boss, not because of the skills or their suitability for the new role.

Whenever someone encounters a situation like this, it’s our memory that provides the lens through which the event is seen, colouring it with one’s interpretation and memories of inadequacies, causing us to have strong emotional feelings that lead to affect-driven behaviours (feelings and behaviours associated with envy or jealousy). 

While secretly feeling envious is bad enough, what makes it worse is that recent research shows that actions follow envious thoughts. A person will often manage their envious feelings by taking action to reduce the success of the person they are feeling envious of. Typically, this may be by spreading malicious rumours or in extreme cases they sabotage the person’s work. 

Veiga et al., in their research on envy in the workplace, surveyed 278 individuals from hundreds of companies about feeling envious at work. Results showed that more than half (58%) experienced an envy-eliciting event with negative consequences.  According to the analysis, it’s the act of social comparison that makes envy detrimental in the workplace. Social standing affects how one is treated in the office and can determine the receipt (or non-receipt) of financial remunerations.

The EBW View

Managing strong feelings of jealousy and envy in the workplace to ensure they do not develop into self destructive behaviour is not easy.

Recognising and helping when colleagues are struggling to cope with maladaptive emotions and behaviours requires focus and a great deal of Emotional Intelligence. Especially when you consider when you most need to manage your feelings and emotions is the time when you have the least resources to do so or are the least motivated to do so.

Here are three practical measures that can be put in place in order to help prevent envy and jealousy becoming a problem in the workplace:

  1. Acknowledge that people have different emotional responses to others success.  Recognising and understanding the cause of our feelings makes them easier to manage (not easy but easier). Remember, all people will feel envious at some point; it is part of being human.

  2. Make sure you take time out to examine negative feeling towards others and what their causes are.  What is the focus of the feelings?  Is it the outcome or the process the person (you are envious of ) went through to achieve success? Take control of your emotions by focusing on what can you learn from the experience and what you can do differently in the future.

  3. Finally, give yourself some time and acknowledge your colleague’s success. Dealing with envy is about accepting that others will be more successful at times. You do not have to like it and many use negative emotions as motivation to achieve better successes, but stopping negative emotion transferring into maladaptive behaviour is about accepting the situation for what it is.

Feeling envious is completely natural. It takes a person with a highly developed Emotional Intelligence to be sensitive to the cause and know how to turn a perceived negative situation into their own personal or their organisation’s advantage.

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Veiga, J., Baldridge, D., & Markóczy, L. (2014). Toward greater understanding of the pernicious effects of workplace envy. The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 1-18.

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