Seven deadly sins of leadership: Envy

In part two of his seven-part series, Nick Humphrey explores the second deadly leadership sin, Envy.



What is envy?

A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck.

People at all levels of a business are susceptible to envy. It is a widespread problem across many industries.


The success of your colleagues can cause resentment and frustration. Potentially, we become ruminative and obsessive, scrutinising rewards, even over-analysing passing praise the supervisor gives to others in the team. The darker sides of our character may come to the surface, as we try and protect our delicate ego.[1]


Tanya Menon and Leigh Thompson, who studied envy in workplace context for over a decade, argue “Envy damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines organizational performance. Most of all, it harms the one who feels it.”[2]


Menon and Thompson describe envy as a "social microscope":


"When you’re obsessed with someone else’s success, your self-respect suffers, and you may neglect or even sabotage your own performance and possibly your career. Envy is difficult to manage, in part because it’s hard to admit that we harbor such a socially unacceptable emotion. Our discomfort causes us to conceal and deny our feelings, and that makes things worse. Repressed envy inevitably resurfaces, stronger than ever."[3]


What is the cost of envy?

A simple example helps to illustrate the point. David and John are colleagues and close friends at an accounting firm. They are considered the rising stars of the firm and on the fast track for partnership. Whilst David is technically the stronger performer, John is well-liked, charismatic and out-going. Over time, John’s extroverted personality leads to him garnishing more and more favourable attention from the managing partner and indeed clients seem to prefer his style. John is promoted to partner before David.


David was initially supportive but eventually jealousy got the better of him. He began to lose interest in work, he was critical of John behind his back, accusing him of “sucking up to management” and being “second rate”. He began to avoid John at work drinks and other social occasions. Eventually he lashed out at a team meeting, clearly resentful of his friend’s promotion and success.


Disparagement and distancing: This story demonstrates some of the common manifestations of envy at work: disparagement and distancing.[4] According to Menon and Thompson:


"When people have qualities we envy but cannot easily acquire, like beauty or charm, we tend to dismiss the value of those qualities and even treat them with scorn. We make ourselves feel better by belittling the accomplishments of the person we resent … by saying things like 'Well, he was just lucky,' or 'He just got the plum assignment because he plays politics.' By using such language, [it calls] into question the fairness of the managers who had supported [the other person] and, by extension, the legitimacy of the organization as a whole."[5]


Causes conflict: In a workplace, internal rivalries and relativities are a major cause of conflict and dissatisfaction. Your team will be less concerned about how much competitors pay their staff and far more concerned about what you pay their peers. Similarly, any perception of favourable treatment (such as promotions, perks, or access to opportunities, like interesting projects or high-profile clients) will drive discontentment.


Reduced productivity: Envy also causes immense distraction and reduced productivity. Some scientists were experimenting on monkeys. There were two cages, side by side. When the monkey pulled a lever a slice of cucumber came out. Each monkey learnt that “work” (pulling the lever) earnt a “reward” (a slice of cucumber).[6]


However, when they changed the reward so one monkey continued to get a cucumber when they pulled the lever and the other one got a grape, which monkeys prefer, the lower paid monkey went on strike and refused to perform the task. They wanted to get paid the same as the other monkey.


Churn: Envy is a potential driver of employee churn. The Harvard Law School Executive course on “Leadership in Law firms” presented a case study about Wall Street Bankers in New York. Two successful bankers at one of the top investment banks received their bonus letters. They’d had cracking years. One got a bonus of $2.0m, the other $2.1m. The one who received the lower bonus, enormous in anyone’s books, resigned and said “You obviously don’t consider me as a valuable as my colleague”.


Poor Collaboration: Enviers have difficulty learning from and collaborating with others, causing oversights and missed opportunity. It not uncommon for resentment to drive both parties to avoid each other, minimising discussion and information sharing, destroying any chance of fruitful teamwork and creating organisational inefficiencies as ideas are not shared.


Preference for external ideas: People prefer to learn about ideas from outside their company, rather than from internal rivals.[7] In one study they asked executives to develop strategies for a restaurant group. They were given two sets of potential innovations. One group was told the ideas were from outsides and the other group were told they were internally generated.


They then asked them to rate the willingness to use the ideas and the portion of their budget they’d allocate to acquiring the innovations. The group who believed they were external ideas were not only more willing to adopt them but would allocate a significantly larger budget to do so.


Interestingly, those executives who believed the ideas were internal though they were over 35% more likely to lose status than the other executives who believed the ideas were external.


What are some strategies for reducing envy?

Here are some strategies for minimising the risk of envy:

  • Be self-aware about what makes you envious: What triggers those feelings, is it praise from your boss? People who earn higher salaries or learn skills faster than you. Once you have identified those factors you can focus on improving yourself in those areas and you can also label those negative feelings and control them before they get out of hand.

  • Focus on yourself and not on other people: Comparisons are odious. Take stock of how you are tracking on your own goals and performance. How is your present self comparing to your past self?

  • Positive affirmations: This is a simple yet powerful tool. Manage your innate urge to be jealous of another’s success by re-affirming your own strengths and victories (even if they are unrelated to work, such as I am a good golfer or a great parent). Menon and Thompson did a study that found that managers who had used affirmations were 60% more likely to allocate time to learning about the plans of a rival manager.[8]

As a leader some strategies you can use for managing envy in your team include:


  • Beware of sharing praise equally: Be authentic in your praise but beware of giving all the “shout-outs” to the same people.

  • Linguistic triggers: Leaders can unintentionally cultivate envy by signalling a preference for certain traits at the expense of others. If you are constantly praising one member for being “innovative” or showing “leadership”, you may isolate the “doers” and “supporters” who are just as valuable.

  • Give credit where it due: It is important to recognise, reward and share the “glory” for wins with the team rather than taking it all for yourself. Build up others and be their ambassador.

  • Access to resources: Be careful to ensure you are not unconsciously giving preference to limited resources or opportunities to your “favourites”.

  • Spheres of influence: Menon and Thompson recommend that you carve out different spheres of influence thereby "Enabling enviers to mentally separate their roles and carve out separate domains can curtail invidious comparisons.”[9]

About the author

Nick Humphrey is the managing partner of Hamilton Locke. He is the Chairman of the Australian Growth Company Awards and author of a number of best-selling books on business and leadership. His latest book is Maverick Executive: strategies for Driving Clarity, Effectiveness and Focus, published by Wolters Kluwer.


Sources

1. https://hbr.org/2010/04/envy-at-work

2. Tanya Menon, Leigh Thompson, “Envy at Work”, April 2010, Harvard Business Review, https://hbr.org/2010/04/envy-at-work

3. Menon, Thompson, ibid

4. Menon, Thompson, ibid

5. Menon, Thompson, ibid

6. Frans de Waal's TED talk, “Moral behaviour in animals,” TED Talk, https://www.ted.com/talks/frans_de_waal_do_animals_have_morals

7. Menon, Thompson, ibid

8. Menon, Thompson, ibid

Menon, Thompson, ibid

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