Envy at Work
Published: Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Updated: Sunday, April 17, 2011 14:04
Envy is a complex emotion that is driven by other emotions: anger, frustration, yearning, anxiety and feelings of competitiveness, just to name a few. Most people have experienced envy at some point, even at the workplace. Envy at the workplace has many effects on those that are envious, and companies are becoming more aware of it. I recently sat down with Alex Loewy, a Masters student at CUNY Baruch College specializing in Industrial Organizational Psychology (also the wife of Langone student Jim McCormick), to discuss envy in the workplace. She has researched and taught a number of courses on motivational development, conflict management and leadership in organizations. In particular, we discussed a recent survey conducted by Dr. Yochi Cohen-Charash, professor of Psychology at CUNY Baruch, on episodic envy.
The main characteristics of episodic envy include feelings of inferiority and some kind of connection or relationship with the person you are envious of (such as a coworker or subordinate). Also, it is often triggered by a periodic or situational incident, and the feeling is felt for something that is important to you or that you aspire to have. For example, in a workplace context, these aspirations may be remuneration, promotion or even work assignments.
Envy can cause a range of feelings and reactions in people. The study noted that there was no distinction in feelings among gender, race or orientation. Alex noted that it is often natural for people to balance out envy by talking about the situation or removing themselves from the environment completely. This is a way to decrease their feelings of inferiority and maltreatment. However, the results could be negative. In a workplace context, these feelings and reactions could result in malicious gossip about coworkers, theft of proprietary information, damage to positive feelings such as motivation, and overall disdain for the job.
While envy could cause negativity in several ways, envy could be a catalyst for positive behavior. In many companies and industries where compensation is driven strongly by job performance, employees tend to be competitive with each other. Healthy competition among peers leads to increased productivity, efficiency and teamwork, resulting in better business unit performance.
While envy often is perceived as a personal and private feeling, corporations have realized that this is a strong feeling that's worth addressing. After all, employees who feel envy could have damaging effects on an organization. Most companies have code of conduct policies and training programs to encourage fair treatment of all employees. Giving a voice to the employees is also important. Some companies, such as those on Fortune's 50 Best Companies to Work For list, allow employees to communicate their thoughts on range of topics such as improving the work environment, project management and career development opportunities through anonymous surveys. Another way to reduce envy is to keep the physical spaces of senior executives separate from the rest of the firm's employees. For example, some companies have executive dining rooms and reserved parking spaces that are out of sight from the general employee space. The idea is – employees won't be envious of what they can't see.
On a personal level, there are ways that employees could deal with envy at the workplace. Alex suggests communicating with someone outside the situation, such as a friend or mentor. Other suggestions include focusing on what could be learned from the subject of envy. For example, at Google, employees who are recognized for excellent performance in their respective areas are asked to blog internally about their work experience at Google. More specifically, the emphasis of the blogs is to share their thoughts on what made them successful in their jobs. This way, other Google employees vying for higher positions have a window into how to obtain them. The least favorable way of dealing with envy is to quit a job. The feeling likely wasn't managed well and negative reactions to envy could emerge in a new job as well.
Envy is not the most favored emotion, but is it exists nonetheless. In a workplace setting, envy should be dealt with delicately, and companies and employees alike have been making strides to do so.