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Workplace jealousy: It shoulda been mine!

by Sheila Norman-Culp
Publication: The Seattle Times Company

October 29, 2007

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Anyone who has not experienced jealousy at the office is either lying or in deep denial.

What happened when he got the promotion that you didn't? When she was assigned the top client that you weren't? When it was so blatantly obvious that your talent left your colleagues in the dust — but nobody seemed to notice?

Jealousy is such a primal emotion that it's hardly possible to stop the feeling. Just watch any toddler erupt when a sibling starts to play with his toy. Yet being jealous is so destructive and unattractive in the workplace that you need to be able to dissect and control your emotions.

You also need to successfully fend off jealous attacks from co-workers.

Your own worst enemy

The Greek philosopher Antisthenes hit the nail on the head: "As iron is eaten by rust, so are the envious consumed by envy."

Uncontrolled feelings of jealousy — and the behavior that accompanies those feelings — can make you a workplace pariah.

Robert Vecchio, a professor of management at Notre Dame, found that people who envy others at work were associated with lower self-esteem and higher levels of Machiavellian behavior.

"If you let envy impact you in a negative way — like getting angry or feeling worse about yourself — it will affect your productivity and your quality of work," said Gary S. Topchik, author of "Managing Workplace Negativity."

"You will become bitter, you will start venting, and pretty soon you will have a reputation as someone with a negative attitude," Topchik said.

So the more jealous you act, the more you set yourself up for future failures by displaying traits that make it even less likely you will be promoted.

When jealousy is OK

Counterintuitive, but it can be true: If another colleague's glory spurs you to redouble your efforts toward your own success, then yes, a touch of jealousy has been a force for good.

"If someone was sitting next to you and now they are promoted, jealousy can be a very positive
emotion if it enables you to become more proactive about your own career," Topchik said. "That
person has become a role model, shown you a possible path to take."

A study of bank tellers by researchers John Schaubroeck and Simon Lam showed that those who were the most envious of a colleague's promotion displayed higher job performance in later months than those who were not as jealous.

If you are jealous because you think promotions were unfairly handed out, or because your firm
values traits you don't think are important, jealousy might prompt you to think more deeply about your job — and that's never a bad thing.

The table turns ...

What if others are jealous of you?

Never underestimate the damage that jealousy can do to your career — it is one of the underlying causes of workplace bullying, which has serious health and career consequences.

Nigel Nicholson, a professor at the London Business School, tells anyone who has just been promoted that they need to consciously change their attitudes and routines toward co-workers in order to fend off attacks of jealousy.

If a colleague is thinking, "They are just the same as me, why did they get promoted?" jealous feelings are surely coming. But if you demonstrate a specific expertise, put in longer hours, dress and act more professionally, co-workers might recognize that you are, in fact, different. They still might not like your promotion, but they can at least acknowledge valid reasons for it.

What can a boss do?

Doesn't jealousy spur competition, and isn't that a good thing for American business? Why should managers care whether their employees are jealous?

Well, they need to because jealousy is so destructive to productivity.

"Quite often people are jealous because of a misconception," Topchik said. "Communication is
essential. Listen, find out why the person feels that way, that alone might ease the situation."

Managers also need to make sure workers know office polices. Be fair in handing out assignments and show appreciation to all. The more secure employees are about their own abilities, the less they worry about others.

Topchik says workers should find out why a colleague was promoted so they can better understand what talents their company is looking for, then talk to their manager about how to increase their own chances for promotion.

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