Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The wages of sin: Envy in the workplace

(This post is inspired by the Research Digest's Sin Week, bringing psychological understanding to the seven sins. Sin Week also featured in February's The Psychologist magazine.)

Have you ever felt that tight, uncharitable feeling in your belly when a colleague gets a raise, or commendation, and all you can think is “why wasn't that me?” Especially common when the colleague is like you – same role, similar tenure? That's envy, my friend. As you may recognise, it often contains a sour seam of hostility, full of ill-will towards the successful party. Clearly, this is not ideal for workplace relationships.

We might think it better to admire another's success instead, and this feeling of delighted approval is commonly thought of as a good workplace motivator. But recent research by Niels van de Ven and colleagues (covered in a sin week follow-up) suggests that feeling admiration doesn't increase motivation or performance toward our own goals.

Rather, the researchers found that motivation was most enhanced by what they call 'benign envy', a state where you don't actively wish misfortune to the person but still twinge with the recognition that their success could be yours. Of course, once in the envy zone, it's possible to tip into the more toxic kind.

The lessons here aren't simple. As the van de Ven paper notes, 'whether to admire or to be envious might depend on what matters most: feeling better or performing better' – or as we might put it, a collaborative working culture or increases in effectiveness. Still, here are a few thoughts to navigate this.

When envy is an issue in the workplace, employees can
  • Combat this by engaging more deeply with their own goals. Detailed goal and career planning can turn others' success from a vague threat into valuable information: 'They've got early promotion. What can I learn from them to make Section Head next year?'
  • Form tighter working relationships. As psychologist Alex Haslam points out, this can iron out the uglier features of envy by transforming 'their achievement' into 'our achievement'.
To maximise the 'better yourself' impact of envy, managers can
  • Ensure success is seen as deserved. Otherwise, malicious envy is more likely to arise. Organisational justice and fair reward of performance are likely to be crucial here.
  • Help people believe they can self-improve. The van de Ven study showed this was key to achieving benign envy. A mistake when celebrating success, is to focus on the unique: “nobody thinks like Dinesh does”, or one-off factors. Emphasise the attainable.
Finally, watch out for the flipside of envy: scorn for those we consider lower than us. Given that we tend not to think about the inner world of those we scorn, this is a recipe for being blindsided by really nasty conflict. I wouldn't envy you that.

ResearchBlogging.orgvan de Ven, N., Zeelenberg, M., and Pieters, R. (2011). Why Envy Outperforms Admiration. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin DOI: 10.1177/0146167211400421

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