The Impact of Envy on High Performing Employees

High performers are employees who work harder and accomplish more than the average. They are typically highly valued by employers. Unfortunately, this advanced performance level can cause overachievers to be noticed and even targeted for bullying by their peers, who may be envious of the attention or rewards they’re given. Such victimization can result in decreased performance or increased turnover, as high performers that feel targeted move on to other employment opportunities.

In a pair of new studies, researchers decided to gain a better understanding of this relationship. Their goals were to see if high-performing employees do experience victimization by their peers, the causes of this counterproductive relationship, and factors that could possibly minimize instances of workplace victimization.


First, the researchers tested to see if high levels of employee performance are related to victimization. A sample group of 4,874 participants from 339 different work groups were given surveys regarding their work performance and victimization. This study found that individuals who had higher levels of work performance did report increased victimization. Accepting that victimization of high performers is an issue, the next step was to determine why this relationship exists and identify potential contextual situations that may minimize victimization. In order to do this, the researchers ran a second, more intensive study with 217 members of 67 work groups in a South Korean company.

For the second study, employee performance was measured in terms of supervisor ratings, employee identification with their group, and co-worker envy toward each member of the group, as well as self-reports of victimization. This second study revealed additional information about high performer victimization that supported findings from the first study, as there was a direct connection between employees whose performance was rated highly by supervisors and victimization by co-workers. They found that co-worker envy accounted for this relationship, as high performance led to higher levels of envy, which in turn related to victimization. This would make sense, as co-workers may be jealous of high-performing colleagues, triggering negative actions toward their colleagues.


So the crucial question is, what actions can an organization take to minimize bullying of high performers? Fortunately, work group identification was found to act as a buffer, weakening the relationship between high employee performance and victimization. Therefore, employers can take action by encouraging employees to identify as a member of their individual work groups or teams. By taking the time to build strong group identification, members may feel like the contributions of the high performer reflect well on the group as a whole, rather than just the individual. In short, it is key to emphasize the ways that individual victories benefit the whole team.