We come across envy on a daily basis, whether we recognise it or not. Envy is so unpleasant, negative and corrosive that often we would rather not think about it or devote any energy to it.
In my experience, envy is harmful to the recipient precisely because it is never out in the open. What is the impact of envy in the workplace?
Internal politics can be the cancer of organisations. If we think about the way some workplaces and recruitment organisations are set up, it raises an interesting question: is competition the best way to get your employees to produce?
It’s possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. However, if some people are preoccupied with bringing others down, that’s not healthy for any organisation. It is also true that envious people undervalue their own efforts while being resentfully impressed by those of others.
Envy in the workplace damages relationships, disrupts teams and undermines performance. Most of all it harms the one who feels it. When we are obsessed with someone else’s success, our self-respect suffers and we may neglect or even sabotage our own performance and possibly our career. Comparing ourselves with successful workmates can be motivating, but it can also trigger envy.
In the workplace, envy is difficult to manage, because it is hard to admit that we harbour such a socially unacceptable emotion. Some people become so fixated on a rival that they lose their focus on their own performance.
Envy can become a real issue for both employers and employees, dividing workforces and distracting people from the jobs they want and are paid to do. When a co-worker has something we want – for example, a better job title, salary or perks – instead of feeling pleased for them, or understanding why they are in a stronger position, we feel inferior and resent their success.
This is when envy is stirred up, when we feel we are not being treated in the same way as our colleagues. This is where competition and envy clash. Competition involves wanting to outdo the other person, whereas envy is resenting what the other person has, wanting to take it away and even wishing to see the other person ruined. If our response to another’s success or promotion is to channel our envy towards the other, there can be no positive consequences.
Favouritism at work certainly stirs up envy. Significant envy in our own childhood makes us particularly susceptible to it. The ‘office family’, with its particular hierarchy of senior adults in charge, sibling rivalry, divided resources of time, affection and money, carries echoes of our own families of origin.
Envy in the workplace is difficult to manage. We spend some 40 hours a week at work, only to go home and torment ourselves even further by conducting a post-mortem on our day. Part of this drama is to conceal or deny these feelings, and that makes things worse. Repressed envy inevitably resurfaces in a stronger form.
We are not used to talking about envy in the workplace, yet it is there, woven into the fabric of organisations. It affects the mood and morale of employees and, ultimately, it is one of the causes of employee disengagement and loss of productivity.
Dr Patricia Polledri has worked in the field of forensic psychiatry and psychotherapy for over 20 years.
Her new book, Envy In Everyday Life, is published by Clink Street Publishing on 28 June 2016.