Not a Green-Eyed Monster: Envy Could Help You on Your Road to Success
Workplaces can be highly competitive, with performance reviews, performance-based awards, promotions, bonuses, and more. So, it is not an uncommon occurrence that if an employee views themselves as lagging behind, they can become envious of another’s success. In research revolving around this subject and in popular culture, envy has almost entirely been seen as dysfunctional, and broadly, as detrimental, to the “envier,” “envied,” and the relationship between the two; leading to dark thoughts, ugly forms of negative criticism, other behavior undermining the “envied”; and sometimes cascading into environments of gossip and rumor mongering. It is no wonder that those in leadership positions tend to banish or bury any envy simpering in their team.
But in a recent paper published in the Academy of Management Journal, Prof KiYoung Lee, from Yonsei University, Korea, and Prof Michelle K. Duffy, from University of Minnesota, ask whether envy is always destructive. Can it be that some people channel their envy into bettering themselves? And if so, what kind of people and under what conditions?
To answer these questions, Lee and Duffy identified two measures that have been linked to an employee’s improved performance: core self-evaluation and workplace friendships. They then designed a survey around these for employees in the cosmetic and financial industries and analyzed the results.
As it turned out, “enviers” could in fact use their envy to drive self-improvement. Envy did not always trigger observational learning from their envied target. But individuals with higher core self-evaluations and those who had stronger friendships with the people they envied were more likely to seek out advice from their envied target. People with greater core self-evaluations were also less likely to undermine their envied target. And if employees learned from their envied targets, they would grow as people and ultimately demonstrate better performance.
Envy needn’t turn the workplace a poisonous green. It can be functional: motivational and productive.
Both leaders and followers should embrace this. As Dr Lee pertinently explains, “Envy is a natural emotion. In and of itself it is not bad, and it could be productive. It may be an indication that some sort of corrective action is needed from us for ourselves.”
Bringing this understanding of envy down to the actionable pointers for the workplace, Dr Lee says, “It is advised that managers, instead of avoiding or suppressing envy, focus on how to capitalize on its positive aspects. Our study suggests that instilling a sense of self-worth and self-confidence—perhaps through encouraging performance reviews—and fostering positive relationships at work—maybe with social gatherings and team outings—are good ways to go. All employees should accept their feeling of envy, ponder about why they feel this way, and consider what resources they may have to constructively improve themselves.”
Envy needn’t be the green-eyed monster in the room. In the right social environment, it could be the bright-eyed spright that drives you to success!
Updated in July 2020
Professor M. Jae Moon
Professor Jeonghye Choi