Monday, 10 March 2014

How the green-eyed monster colours our perceptions

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.

ResearchBlogging.orgVeiga, 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 DOI: 10.1080/09585192.2013.877057


  1. Hi Alex! I think envy is an epidemic in our culture.

    Everything in our lives in based on interdependency. I got my job because of saying the right thing at the right time on the right day, with qualifications I gained because of my hard work, but without my teachers' and parents support and a nationality which entitles me to a free education, I could not have achieved this.

    However, envy is in every piece of advertising we see.

    "Buy these clothes/cars/houses and be as beautiful and happy as them..."
    That is the message of most billboards.

    Sales and marketing strategies rely on us comparing ourselves to others, and finding a level of dissatisfaction that prompts us to spend money.

    Our buying habits colour our thinking habits. Do we notice this habit in our minds? Do we question our envy enough?

    I think partly envy can be tackled by companies on an outer level. Individual bonuses definitely support the statement "I achieved this through my own hard work". Team bonuses support the statement "We achieved this together". Companies should reflect on this strongly.

    Individually, feelings of envy cause a lot of suffering.

    On an inner level, how much do we compare ourselves to others? How much do we relate our self-worth to our status?

    Recently I found myself without a car and a job, and it was very easy for my mind to tell me stories about how worthless I was! Even though as a human being I was still intrinsically the same good-hearted person.

    I found myself looking at people with nice houses and cars and envying them. The statement "It's alright for them!" surfaced many times.

    Luckily for me, I have been given some skills in working with my mind. Through meditation, my self-awareness has developed and I could catch this habitual thinking and challenge it.

    Then I applied an antidote to help me shift my perception.

    Here were some of the antidotes that helped me:
    –The reminder that I am where I am now because of my past actions.
    –The reminder that many causes and conditions have to come together to contribute to getting a job and a car. I can work towards generating the right causes and conditions, but ultimately there are other people and circumstances involved too.
    –Working with my thoughts, letting envious thoughts go like passing clouds, before they became whole stories in my head.
    –Celebrating the success of others, "Wonderful that they have everything they want! I hope everyone can be as happy and successful as them."

    I wholeheartedly agree that "a low-level of envy can be useful. A hard-working attitude that seeks to accomplish success and rewards for oneself as well as one's company should definitely be encouraged and can help motivate individuals.

    I welcome John Veiga and colleagues' study and your article and hope they help more companies and individuals reflect on envy, on both an inner and outer level.

    Warm wishes,


  2. Hi Lyndi

    Thanks for such a thoughtful post. I'm glad the article provoked you to write and your thoughts resonate with my own in many ways on this topic.


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