What role does envy play in the workplace?

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What role does envy play in the workplace?

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Envy has been a handy prop in popular culture for some time now, whether in The Merchant of Venice or Se7en.  Mostly, envy is referenced as a distinctly negative emotion, and that negative vibe often carries across to our workplace behaviours.

A study, published recently in the International Journal of Human Resources Management, highlights the pernicious effect envy has in the workplace.  The study was born out of the belief that existing studies of workplace emotions failed to accurately account for the role of envy.

Their survey found that 58% of employees had experienced something that elicited envy whilst at work.  This figure is as high as it is largely down to the role social comparison plays.  In the workplace, this translates into our standing relative to our colleagues.  It plays a part in how we’re treated by our peers, our salary, maybe even our very survival.

This is accentuated by the common practice within companies of trumpeting individual successes, thus making it very clear who is doing well and who isn’t.  Whilst this may do great things for those in the spotlight, what does it do to those that aren’t?

The study suggests that we create schemas, or rules of thumb by which we live by, and that these schemas are a direct creation born out of our experiences.  The more events reoccur, the quicker they become schemas, and the harder it is for the individual to look past their perception of reality.

The research then goes on to suggest that the typical response to having this schema triggered is a negative one, whether cursing under our breath or spreading malicious rumours.  It doesn’t have to be thus however.

A Dutch study from a couple of years ago provides a slightly more optimistic outlook for envy at work.  It goes as far as to suggest that envy is a much better source of motivation than its more positive bedfellow admiration.

The researchers split envy into two types:

  • Benign envy
  • Malicious envy

Benign envy was when you believe someones achievements were deserved, malicious envy was when you did not.  Here is the thing.  When participants in the study had either admiration or malicious envy for another, their subsequent efforts did not change one bit.  When they had benign envy however they increased their efforts as a result.

So how do you produce benign envy?  What kind of circumstances enable it?

They did some research into this as well and the findings should be of interest to all managers.  When people believed that someone achieved success through hard work and effort they experienced benign envy.  When they believed that all of their efforts would be futile it resulted in malicious envy, ie the destructive kind.

I think that is pretty important so bears repeating.  An ‘effort pays’ culture delivered extraordinary effort, whereas an ‘effort is futile’ culture produced destructive results.

The lesson appears to be clear.  If you’re going to promote and reward people in your team, you better make sure they’ve both earned their praise and that the rest of your team believe they too can achieve such results if they put the work in.

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