The flush of envy - pain at another's good fortune - is a common experience in many a workplace. This emotion can disrupt wellbeing, heighten turnover, and contribute to poorer group performance. John Veiga and colleagues felt that existing models for evaluating workplace emotions give an incomplete account of envy, which is intimately linked to cognition and social standing. In a new article, they propose a new take on the green-eyed monster.
Veiga's model begins with a felt appraisal triggered by a situation: a painful feeling that may not be understood, but is certainly unwelcome. On its heels follow a pair of cognitive processes, social comparison and a memory search for existing schemas. Social comparison takes that felt appraisal and asks what it means for the person’s environment: does another person's success threaten my own social standing? When an individual’s own standing is particularly vague or precarious, then this is likely to be a primary focus.
Schemas, meanwhile, are the maps of reality that we organise and live by, from 'how to deal with bureaucracy' to ‘I’m always the bridesmaid, never the bride.' As envy-inducing events reoccur - as they surely do for all but the most enlightened - we are presented with opportunities to fold them into schemas such as 'the newcomers always get more recognition for work I do just as well'. As the events are emotionally charged, the schema into which they coalesce is a powerful thing that fuses past experience with interpretation. When the schema is activated its reading of the world floods into awareness to colour the existing moment, making it harder to see things as they are, rather than as validation of 'the way things must be.'
After thoughts, action. Affect-driven behaviours are the spontaneous ways we relieve the tension of a painful emotion, and include a sudden outburst or muttered curses. Another way to manage the emotion is through delayed, premeditated actions like spreading malicious rumours, engaging in plots or sabotage; these are especially shaped by schemas, which cry out for you to make good on your long-standing fantasies of turning the tables. Bad news for the person, the relationship, and the organisation.
58% of 278 survey respondents from hundreds of companies had experienced an envy-eliciting event with detrimental consequences, and this model helps us understand why this is so common. Notable is the role of social comparison, which helps the flash of envy become something more serious. At work, your social standing isn't just an ego issue, but can involve the way you are treated by others, what you are paid, and potentially even your survival within your organisation. What's more, organisations like to make successes as visible as possible, through prizes, employee of the month schemes, bonuses and mentions. Much research attention is paid to the benefits of this for recipients, but less so for the deleterious effects on those who are passed over.
This new model helps us get serious about understanding the impact of envy, and could help us understand why in some instances a low level of envy can be useful. Further research would need to look at how we may compensate for threats to social standing by demonstrating fair and legitimate means to restore standing, such as by ensuring that rewards, ratings and recognition are made transparent and understandable to all.