Curb the envy

Culture  Leadership
07 August, 2017

How to bring the green-eyed monster under control – within yourself, as well as your teams

Many of you in India probably remember the series of Onida television ads, which featured a horned devil and the tagline “neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride”. The campaign ran very successfully for many years. The novelty of the brand mascot played a role, but more importantly, the emotion at the heart of the ads touched a chord in viewers—because envy is something almost everyone can identify with. 

We don’t like to admit it, maybe not even to ourselves, but we have all been envious of someone or the other in our lives—be it a friend, a colleague, or even a stranger. And some of you might still be battling the green-eyed monster.

Organisational researchers, Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson, who spent a decade studying workplace envy, found that people across all levels of the organisation are vulnerable to this emotion. Envy at the workplace can be highly toxic—for the envier, the envied, the team, and the larger organisation.

Constantly coveting what other people have is highly distracting: you can’t focus on your own abilities, goals, and achievements because your entire attention is elsewhere.

The fact is that there will always be someone who is more accomplished, more popular, or better compensated than each of us. This makes envy a zero-sum game: even if you somehow manage to outdo the object of your jealousy, another person will soon take their place. Moreover, it can send your self-esteem spiralling downwards.

Envy is usually sparked by feelings of insecurity. Dwelling on someone else’s success feeds those insecurities, which in turn makes you even more envious—it’s a vicious cycle, one that can take a real toll on your mental health and happiness. And if left unchecked, it can even sabotage your career.

So, my message this week focuses on how to curb this destructive tendency in yourself and manage envy in your team.

It’s important to know the difference between competition and envy. Competitiveness, in moderation, is positive and motivating. You don’t hate the people you compete with; rather, you see them as worthy opponents and are inspired to take on the challenge of besting them. In the context of healthy competition, rivals tend to be quite open about their feelings and continue to interact with one another. On the other hand, envy makes you resent or hate the other person and distance yourself from them. It tends to take up all your mind space and is rarely a motivating force. People generally aren’t open about being envious because it is considered socially unacceptable. Instead, the resentment against someone comes out in other ways, perhaps by undermining them in conversations or worse, badmouthing them.

And that brings me to the organisational cost of envy. Think of it as a virus—unchecked, it can spread and wreak havoc. Envy may start with one person, but can soon grow to influence others, which can cause problems for team dynamics and performance. For instance, if a top performer becomes a target, it can disrupt productivity as well as damage their relationships with external stakeholders. The disparaging whispers about “unfairness”, “partiality”, and so on also call into question the credibility of the management—even though that may be totally unwarranted. Plus, as Menon and Thompson explain in their Harvard Business Review article, Envy at Work, enviers find it tough to learn from people within the organisation, thus harming internal networking, collaboration, and innovation:

‘Our research shows that people want to learn more about ideas that come from other companies than about ideas that originate with rivals in their own organizations. What caused these differences? Concerns about status. When we copy an idea from an outsider, we’re seen as enterprising; when we borrow an idea from a colleague, we mark that person as an intellectual leader…. This dislike of learning from inside rivals has a high organizational price. Employees instead pursue external ideas that cost more both in time (which is often spent reinventing the wheel) and in money (if they hire consultants).’

Let’s take a look at some ways in which you can control your personal green-eyed monster:

1. Ground yourself in your mission

Being envious can take you away from what you truly want because you get caught up in someone else’s version of success—which is why it’s important to take a step back and revisit your own true aspirations. The founder of Lifehack, Leon Ho, recounts that while his company was still new and struggling, another nearby startup rose to rapid prominence—they got a fancy four-storey office with a massive canteen, a swimming pool, and so on. Ho felt the stirrings of envy but, instead of allowing it to fester, he reminded himself of the original purpose behind starting Lifehack—to create a product that brought positivity to people. To achieve this goal, the plushness of the office was irrelevant—it was the work they did in that office which counted. Using his core mission as a touchstone, Ho was able to put things in perspective and return to his own authentic vision of success.

2. Compete with yourself

Envy can make you blind to your own potential and success. Instead of constantly comparing yourself with others, why not try competing with yourself? Track your own performance over time to see if you’re doing better than before—that’s the only benchmark that matters. Celebrate your successes instead of getting distracted by someone else’s accomplishments.

3. Cultivate an abundance mindset

In the article, How to manage envy, jealousy, and competition in work, and life, Megan Hustad shares an interesting explanation for her own feelings of envy:

‘Napoleon Hill, author of the 1937 bestseller Think and Grow Rich, would have accused me of nursing a scarcity mindset—a notion that there’s only so much love, money, and recognition to go around, so any person’s success means there will be less left over for me. Hill contrasted that view with an abundance mindset, which contends that there’s more than enough for everyone to have everything they want. Successful people, he argued, had an abundance mindset.’

An abundance mindset helps you battle envy by reminding you that success isn’t rationed. Your colleague’s achievements don’t take anything away from you—there’s plenty to go around.

4. Practice gratitude and affirmation

If you feel yourself descending into an envy spiral, get out of your own head by practicing gratitude in a mindful way. Begin each day by writing down three things you are grateful for, and refer to your growing list of blessings when the negativity starts creeping up. You can also practice self-affirmation. Menon and Thompson describe an experiment in which they asked managers to think about a rival’s latest idea. Before the task, half the participants were asked to list out their own accomplishments, while the other half were not. The results were telling: the managers who had affirmed themselves were willing to devote 60 percent more time towards learning their rival’s plan than those who had not. So, next time you feel a spark of jealousy, remind yourself of your personal strengths and successes.

5. Curb social media

This is more about countering the general (not just professional) tendency towards envy, and it is particularly relevant for heavy social media users. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are filled with snippets of people’s fabulous lives—exotic holidays, early promotions, exciting social lives. Of course, people only share their very best moments online—but it can be easy to forget that. Social media can make you feel like you’re not good enough because, as someone once said, you end up comparing your behind-the-scenes footage with other people’s highlights reels. So, perhaps cut back on the endless Facebook stalking and let your own life take centre-stage.

Menon and Thompson suggest a few ways in which you, as a leader, can curtail and manage envy within your team, which are quite helpful:

1. Be willing to share

Managers can nip envy in the bud by being generous with the glory. Don’t hog the credit for good performance—share the success with everyone. Create an environment where each team member feels valued and motivated. Also make it a point to share power and responsibilities with those who do well.

2. Cultivate an abundance environment

Where resources are constrained, envy flourishes. While some things are inevitably limited, other resources can be easily enlarged. For instance, don’t make your team members vie ruthlessly with each other for praise or for face-time with you—be generous with these to encourage positivity and cooperation within the group. Plus, try to extend this generosity beyond your own team to curb organisational envy. Keeping resources to yourself isolates you and prevents alliances, while sharing them allows you to build a culture of abundance and reciprocity.

3. Be mindful with praise language

Menon and Thompson identify certain linguistic triggers that should be avoided by leaders:

‘Managers unintentionally breed envy by signalling, through subtle cues, that they appreciate certain types of traits and successes more than others that may be less attention-getting but just as valuable to the organization. So be especially careful about your use of language. For instance, too much public praise for a team member’s “leadership” can make it seem as if you overlook the importance of collaborative followers. Similarly, a word such as “innovation” sets people up to play the comparison game. Instead of singling out innovators, encourage collaborative practices and reward creative thievery.’

4. Separate the envier and envied

As a leader, you may notice one team member becoming envious of another—and it’s up to you to defuse the situation before it gets out of hand. If the above steps don’t help, try separating the work spheres of the envier and the envied in such a way that they are not directly comparable. This way, they can do their best and shine in distinct domains.

Envy is an all-too-human feeling. But just because it’s inevitable doesn’t mean it’s uncontrollable. By reigning this in, you will ultimately be healthier, happier, and—yes—more successful. So, think about what you can do to manage it better.

As always, I look forward to your perspectives.


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