Professional jealousy is a natural emotion and part of being human, but when it rears its ugly head in the workplace, the consequences can be devastating. Our constant connection to social media (which at its very core drives comparison) and economic uncertainty only elevate the prevalence of envy in the workplace.
While psychologists agree the emotions of envy and jealousy are different, they are inextricably linked in terms of how people view, perceive and frame their experiences in the workplace.
Dr. Cheryl Carr, CEO and business psychologist explains, “With jealousy, people are not against you, they are only for themselves. Envy and jealousy leave one feeling weak, embarrassed and not enough. It causes disconnection.”
The shame, fear and anger that circulate around envy makes self-awareness and reflection difficult. To admit jealousy requires us to feel vulnerable, alienated and exposed. We are left questioning our abilities and self-worth among whatever group we are comparing ourselves to. These variables reinforce silence and prove to be highly challenging for leaders to overcome as they seek to minimize envy in their workplaces.
How Workplace Envy Damages Organizations
The ability to understand and interpret emotions, particularly “negative” emotions, is a critical skill in a leader’s toolbox. Ignoring envy and jealousy is perilous for leaders, as they play an important role in a team member’s behavior, work quality and colleague interactions.
Research demonstrates when people are envious, they are less willing to share information and become more likely to engage in sabotage and socially undermining behaviors. They often refrain from helping others, are less open with the team and disengage from their work, leading to a decline in performance.
Craig Laser, clinical associate professor at Arizona State University, shared that, “When jealousy or envy exists in organizations, leaders witness triangulation in communication, decreased trust in relationships and changes to self-efficiency. Our ego overcompensates for a lack of confidence, and we might exhibit more narcissistic behaviors, which lead to significant problems in the ability to work together as a team.”
In workplaces where envy is prevalent, employees begin to question the fairness and integrity of the organization, which can lead to complaints or accusations of a hostile work environment. Corporate sabotage can occur when an individual drains the company of all productive energy by being disruptive. They might pit team members against you or each other, falsify reports or undermine the business in other ways.
Factors that Contribute to Jealousy at Work
Envy occurs when there is a perception of inequality or when people feel a need to compete for resources. At an individual level, studies have shown that those with higher self-esteem are more likely to use envy as a motivational force, but people with higher neuroticism perceive envy as stressful and will seek to relieve feelings of inferiority by undermining other individuals in the organization.
Organizational environments often unconsciously promote these factors when processes or structures encourage inequalities and competition.
Leadership Tips to Minimize Envy and Jealousy in Teams
Leaders have a great deal of power over their employees’ and team’s emotional health. The actions that they take impact others profoundly, and beyond organizational outcomes, can affect them personally. Leaders who want to support healthy work environments will mitigate some of the factors that contribute to envy and jealousy.
1. Hire carefully.
Consider the potential employee’s emotional maturity, competence and confidence at the time of hire. Try to determine if the employee takes responsibility and owns their mistakes, can be vulnerable and are able to provide examples of when they partnered with someone they found to be difficult to work with.
2. Lead consciously.
When leaders create open, high quality relationships at work, envy and jealousy fail to thrive. Supporting fairness and minimizing favoritism among employees is an important first step. Those who are perceived by employees as a leader’s “favorites” are seen as having inside information and access to more resources.
Leaders who cultivate emotional intelligence skills play a crucial role in managing envy. When employees believe opportunities are more abundant, they are less likely to be reduced to jealous thinking. Boosting the emotional intelligence of the team builds awareness, confidence and locus of control and helps teams deal with setbacks more effectively.
3. Engage in the right conversations.
When a previously successful employee’s behavior (and performance) begins to shift, something is wrong. Talk to the employee about what might be occurring. Ask them what is different or what has changed lately that might be impacting performance.
How are you feeling about your team members? Are there relationships that are strong and some that are suffering? Remember that envy and jealousy are shrouded by fear and shame, so creating a safe space for conversation is critical.
4. Evaluate systems and structures where there is high risk of envy.
All emotions occur within the organizational context and are influenced by the company’s culture. Unlike anger, there is no socially acceptable way to confess feeling envious of others. For one to admit they are jealous means to reveal deep feelings of inferiority. Within the workplace, we can create an environment that supports active questioning and allows space to disclose feelings of inadequacy.
Additionally, equitable performance management and evaluation systems and standardized procedures help decrease envy. We often make the erroneous assumption that competition increases motivation. In actuality, it can enhance negative emotions.
Unchecked jealousy breeds a self-conscious and fearful workplace. Ensuring equitable resource allocation and implementing a system that supports employee cooperation and teamwork can help reduce envy and a culture of jealousy.
Laurie Cure, Ph.D., is CEO of Innovative Connections and author of Leading Without Fear.