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Suffering From Professional Envy? Here's How To Turn It Around

You can beat back the worst outcomes of jealousy, and gain self-knowledge, with a few smart strategies.

Suffering From Professional Envy? Here's How To Turn It Around
[Photo: jim jackson via Pexels]

A colleague hired at the same time as you gets promoted into a new leadership role. You weren’t actively gunning for that role yourself, but still, the speed of his ascent has alarms ringing in your head. Indeed, you soon find it hard to think of much else.

Envy is an automatic human emotion. We cannot stop feeling it, which is too bad, since, as Joseph Epstein wrote in his book, Envy, "Of the seven deadly sins, only envy is no fun at all." However, there are ways to turn this emotion into more concrete action.

First, it’s important to recognize that envy is what you are feeling. Most people don’t walk around saying, "I’m envious!" notes Leigh Thompson, a professor of dispute resolution and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management, and co-author with Tanya Menon of Stop Spending, Start Managing (out this summer).

Instead, she says, we tell ourselves three stories. First, "Life is unfair. I don’t know why this person is getting the attention and accolades." Second, "I should be getting those!" Then, third, "I am going to try to make it clear somehow to myself and others that whatever attention or rewards this person is getting are undeserved." This impulse manifests itself in gossip, criticism, and refusing to share information. As Thompson puts it, "It’s not an attractive emotion."

"Envy Is The Death Of Learning"

The psychological toll is bad enough, but there are business costs to envy as well. We feel envy more acutely when the target is close to us, and this rival "outperforms me, outshines me on a dimension important to my self-identity," says Thompson. "If you’re an insider, then my fear is that people make natural comparisons between us." Consequently, we become dismissive of a rival’s ideas. "Envy is the death of learning," she says.

In one study, Thompson and colleagues found that people were more willing to adopt ideas, and willing to pay more to acquire information about those ideas, if they were attributed to external groups versus internal rivals. One can ponder how many billions are spent on consulting fees so people can avoid attributing ideas to colleagues they perceive as threatening.

Clues To Your Ambitions

Fortunately, it is possible to minimize the effects, and even gain some self-knowledge. First, since envy stabs hardest on dimensions that matter to you, such feelings offer insight into what is important to your self-identity. If someone’s promotion sparks jealousy, then perhaps moving into a senior leadership role is more important to you than you previously thought. That offers you a nudge to meet with your manager and figure out how you can be in the running for a bump up the ladder next time.

As for one’s psychological state, Thompson and colleagues found that when people did a simple self-affirmation exercise, they were fine with learning of a rival’s success. Make a short list of achievements or traits you are proud of.

"When I remind myself that I’ve actually done some halfway decent things in the not-too-distant past, then I’m no longer shaken to the core by someone else’s achievement," says Thompson. Don’t try to make a long list; "that can completely backfire," she says.

"We can’t think of eight to 10 things, but you can probably think of one to three things." From a place of high self-esteem, you can put your focus back on yourself and your life, rather than making comparisons that lead to ugly actions. You feel free to use the best ideas, wherever they come from.

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