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Can Envy Be a Virtue?

Hard-wired to Know Where We Fit In
While envy is hard to measure and even harder to suppress, leaders can take steps to neutralize some of its more negative aspects. “The obvious approach is to do your best to minimize the inequities within your team,” says Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell. That, of course, “can create problems of its own if not everyone is performing at the same level. The result can be a strong perception of unfairness…. But if people feel that the way rewards are allocated is basically transparent and fair, this can help mitigate feelings of envy and motivate team members to improve their performance.”
Klein suggests that leaders appeal to, and highlight, the “collective goals of an organization that employees are going to share and contribute to. When teams within organizations start to focus almost solely on their individual team goals and less on the organizations’ strategy and goals, that’s when feelings of envy get exacerbated. It becomes ‘us versus them,’ when in truth, it’s all ‘us.’”

Competition can be energizing for many people, Klein adds, “but I don’t know that it has to be as internally focused. If teams in an organization are uniting to take on a competitor – Coke versus Pepsi — as opposed to another internal division or team, you get the same excitement, the same adrenalin, that comes with competition — but without some of the destructive effects.”

Melwani suggests that people who are envious of their colleagues and engage in behaviors that hurt others “do it because they think it will make them feel better. We believe that venting in these ways helps us cope with envy, but actually it doesn’t. Venting often makes your emotions stronger” and potentially more destructive. Culturally, she says, organizations can change this by changing the way teams or people are compared – “for example, by maximizing group/team interests and identity and minimizing self-interest.”

Another approach, says Mueller, is for managers to engage in practices that “emphasize people’s fair treatment, either procedurally or personally.” A manager who gives raises that could result in envious feelings, she notes, should explain how these raises were decided. “The reasons should not be arbitrary, and there should be some standard of fairness” associated with them. The same holds true for promotions, adds Schweitzer: Envy can be managed if leaders are clear about what it takes for employees to move up in the organization.

Advice for managers from other experts on envy include: asking a company’s high performers to mentor employees who, left on their own, might otherwise feel envious of their colleagues’ success; setting up a system that rotates job and team assignments so that no one employee feels unfairly stuck in a role perceived to be less integral to the team’s functioning, and encouraging envied colleagues to remember to praise the efforts of their co-workers.

If envy is fed by people comparing themselves to others, then Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other sites are gourmet meals for those willing to take a seat at the table. “We are hard-wired to know where we fit in, how we are doing, even if it makes us miserable,” says Schweitzer. “This was always true, but social media makes it so much worse. It expresses comparisons in a more biased way because the information we are getting is not complete; it is self-selected. People are sharing their successes, not their failures.”

The college roommate who just lost his job isn’t necessarily posting about it on Facebook, says Schweitzer. “It’s some other peer who just won a Pulitzer Prize or got his movie produced, or who is posting pictures of his new Viking stove or Tesla. We are drawn to these sites because the only way to see how well we are doing is by comparison.”

Bidwell points to another Gore Vidal quote: “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” From that point of view, Bidwell says, “spending time on Facebook can be very toxic.”

Wharton Business School, June 11, 2014 (shortened)