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Envious employees: Taming the green-eyed monster

by Jennifer Ochstein, Tribune Correspondent
Publication: South Bend Tribune

November 12, 2007

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Literature is littered with envy. And it seems few of the stories turn out well. Take for instance the envious Iago in Shakespeare’s “Othello,” says Robert Vecchio, the Franklin D. Schurz Professor of Management at the University of Notre Dame, who has studied such workplace envy.

Iago hatches a plot to destroy the object of his envy, Cassio, as well as his boss, Othello, who gave Cassio a promotion Iago felt he deserved.

After studying employee envy for 10 years, Vecchio’s found that it’s often ignored. And while the story of “Othello” may be an extreme case, envy does cause dysfunction in the workplace.

“It’s been somewhat neglected,” Vecchio says of employee envy. “People believe it’s infantile and that they shouldn’t admit to it. People believe it’s something they should’ve gotten over in kindergarten. But there’s a lot of emotion that comes when rewards are passed out.”

Self esteem boost

If what fifth century Greek philosopher Socrates wrote is true – “envy is the ulcer of the soul”
– perhaps the envious need some extra encouragement.

Vecchio has studied people in the workplace who do most of the envying as well as those who feel envied.

He’s discovered some similarities within each of the two groups.

Groups of people who feel envy have been found to loaf, he says, contributing less to workplace projects and the overall environment of the office.

Vecchio says this is their way of “evening up the score.”

Envious people also see themselves as underdogs, which fits into their overall self-esteem.

Vecchio says he’s found that people who envy more have a lower dispositional self-esteem. These are people who have low self-esteem practically all the time instead of during certain situations.

“This gives you a clue about how to combat envy,” Vecchio says. “Help build self-esteem.”

Other envious people tend to be those with more Machiavellian personalities, people who are social manipulators or highly attuned to social relations, says Vecchio. And if you consider what envy is in the first place, that might make sense with this group.

“Envy is an emotion related to the perceived or real threat of the loss of social standing,” Vecchio says.

But people seem mostly fearful of their feelings of envy, trying to avoid and stuff them away, he says.

Cinderella complex

If Herodotus, a fifth century historian, was right “that it is better to be envied than pitied,” perhaps we should pity those who feel envied.

Vecchio hasn’t only studied those who envy most, but also those who feel envied by others.

He mentioned the idea of the Cinderella Syndrome in relation to people who believe they can’t help but arouse resentment from other people when they’re simply trying to do their jobs.

Vecchio explains that the common elements of the Cinderella story involve a good person who is resented for her goodness. It also usually involves some sort of rescue.

Among the people Vecchio’s studied, he says he asked them to what extent they feel envied and that people are out to get them.

It turns out that there are particular groups of people in the study that feel more envied than others.

People with greater job longevity believe they’re targets of envy, Vecchio says, perhaps because they many times have higher salaries and have been rewarded for their work over the years.

And, too, Machiavellian personalities not only report feelings of envy but also report feeling as if they’re envied. These are the folks who feel as if they’re “in” with the boss, having a close relationship with him or her, Vecchio explains. They may perceive others as being envious of the relationship.

While this may seem like jealousy, Vecchio says jealousy contains envy, but envy doesn’t contain jealousy.

You only need two people for envy to occur: the rival and the protagonist or focal person, says Vecchio. For jealously you need three people – the focal person who has a valued relationship with another person and a rival – because jealousy involves a threat to a valued relationship.

Coping with envy

Because people tend to want to keep their envy out of the limelight, they tend to find ways to cope.

Vecchio says some seek support from the co-workers through complaining or commiserating. Incidentally, he says more women tend to find comfort in this form of coping.

Others tend to keep it all bottled inside and move toward self-medication through drugs or alcohol, Vecchio says. Turns out men tend to do this more.

Still others will demand greater rewards for their work.

While not necessarily directly related to work, Vecchio says people will also “self medicate” through retail therapy – trying to make themselves feel better by buying stuff to bolster their
self-esteem.

People also tend to engage in conspicuous consumption – buying the best designer clothes, the nicest cars, the biggest homes – to make people think they enjoy a higher social status.

Dysfunctional workplace

All this envy, says Vecchio, can create a dysfunctional culture of envy and resentment among employees.

He says he doesn’t necessarily agree with the idea that envy induces people to work harder.

Instead, he says he’s found that workplace cultures of envy and resentment tend to see people who try to undermine each other’s work and their social standings and fosters back stabbing.

This accounts for the phenomenon in some inner city schools, he explains, in which high achievers often try to hide their accomplishments so they’re not derided by those who resent their success. It, too, accounts for the Fear of Success Syndrome, in which people will discredit themselves to minimize resentment others may feel about their work.

Steps to minimize envy

Luckily, a dysfunctional workplace is not necessary.

Vecchio says there are steps supervisors can take to minimize workplace envy. Many people think that having emotions at work are not legitimate ... Wrong, says Vecchio.

People will have feelings if they’re passed up for some reward at work, but it’s better to learn to anticipate and manage those emotions before they turn into envy.

“Acknowledge and surface the emotions instead of bottling them up,” says Vecchio. “Denial is not the best approach.”

While he admits that competitiveness is not going to disappear, supervisors should be preemptive.

Create an inclusive environment in which decision-making includes everyone in the office. If that’s not feasible, make sure decisions are transparent, helping people understand why the decisions have been made.

Rotating assignments is another good strategy, he says, by having everyone share in the desirable and undesirable tasks. This is where team structures enter in.

Vecchio says he’s begun looking at what happens when employees anticipate envy or a threat from others. The people he’s studied anticipate envy before they’re recognized for an achievement, and many would rather take their recognition in private over being recognized
publicly and inviting resentment, he explains.

But, Vecchio says, if team structures are in place they tend to mitigate envy. If everyone in the team rotates duties and leadership assignments, as well as making decisions within a team structure, it undercuts envy because everyone’s working toward the same end.

“Most people, however, don’t think of this as emotion management,” says Vecchio, referring to using teams of employees.

But, in fact, working in teams is a form of emotion management, he says.

And, too, setting up a reward structure that recognizes the team in such a way that it’s the team against some outside force, like competition outside the company, also is helpful, he explains. This seems to solidify the team’s feeling that it is working together as one group and working toward the same end, instead of refusing to share information with each other to get a leg up over one another.

In the end, it seems Vecchio argues against fostering envy at work.

After all, he says, it is one of the seven deadly sins.

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