Envy At Work: The Tale of Two Envies

Topic(s): job performance, work environment
Publication: Academy of Management Review (January, 2012)
Article: Envy As Pain: Rethinking the Nature of Envy and Its Implications for Employees and Organizations
Authors: Kenneth Tai, Jayanth Narayanan and Daniel J. McAllister
Reviewed by: Nupur Deshpande

Envy. Since historic times, social comparisons has spurred many conflicts. Envy at work comes in many masks. Undermining someone socially. Not helping them. We can even allow our own job performance to suffer out of envy-driven resentment or spite. We all know how envy can have disastrous consequences. But is envy always bad?

Researchers think this is just one side of the story. The other side is ‘benign envy’ or envy with helpful consequences both for the individual (the envious), the envied, and the organization. While we would like to fight some employees and flee from the rest, we modify our behavior based on three factors:

  • How we feel about ourselves,
  • How we perceive the envied target, and
  • What organizational support we receive.

People who feel in control of themselves experience less anxiety and typically engage in benign envy because sabotaging behavior goes against their positive self-image of high performance standards. They feel challenged rather than threatened. Because they are more engaged in their job, they take the opportunity to learn and grow. They respond to negative feedback and setbacks with increased effort. Secondly, achievements of competent, “warm” people who are envied are perceived as justified, despite being the target of envy. We are more likely to help them as a result. Lastly, if the envious trust the systems in an organization, they believe that the rewards are well-deserved and that they too would receive the same rewards if they worked just as hard.

So really, at the end of the day, envy is more about the perspective of the envious person, than it is about the one envied. A system that is perceived as just will help keep envy from becoming counterproductive.