The writer Gore Vidal once described “envy” as “the central fact of American life.” And the workplace, he might have added. 

Among the seven deadly sins – which also include wrath, avarice, sloth, pride, lust and gluttony – envy has been labeled the most joyless, widespread and destructive. 

Yet this emotion – loosely defined as resentment of an advantage that another person has, often coupled with a desire to take that advantage and/or harm the person who possesses it — is also the hardest to pin down, at least within organizations. That’s because in surveys and questionnaires, according to researchers, employees generally refuse to acknowledge that they are envious of their colleagues. As Maurice Schweitzer, Wharton professor of operations and information management, notes: “Envy is an emotion we don’t feel comfortable expressing. A person might tell you that he or she is feeling sad today, but it’s less appropriate to tell our colleagues we are feeling envious. So what happens is that people fail to appreciate how pervasive envy is.”  

Yet consider just how much there is to be envious of in a workplace: a colleague who gets a bigger raise, promotion or office; a team member who gets more resources for a particular task or has better access to the boss; a co-worker who is a more polished public speaker, a better writer or is simply smarter than anyone else in the room. 

“Social media and our own interest in seeking comparison information will create envy.” –Maurice Schweitzer

What causes envy in the workplace, and how do people who experience envy react to it? How should leaders deal with envy in their organizations? And what is the difference between what psychologists have termed “malicious” envy versus “benign” envy?

Competing with Peers

Envy is “ubiquitous,” says Schweitzer, but there are certain actions by managers or leaders that serve to aggravate it – including, for example, workplace competitions and employee-of-the-month awards. “Social media and our own interest in seeking comparison information will create envy,” according to Schweitzer. “We might think that our new job promotion isn’t a big deal, that it shouldn’t create distance between us and others. But when [colleagues] come into our new corner office, they are encoding that information and will feel envy.”

Organizations where corporate culture revolves around publicizing certain results — such as sales targets or monthly productivity numbers – are other examples of environments that contribute to envy, says Jeff Klein, executive director of the Wharton Leadership Program. “The danger here is that envy goes from professional competition to interpersonal conflict.”

Most organizations, he adds, are “always managing a set of competitive and collaborative dynamics between teams, which are typically vying for money and people but also for attention, sponsorships and other intangibles. It’s these competitions that can lead to envy.”

Shimul Melwani, a professor at UNC’s Kenan Flagler Business School, agrees. “Envy is rife in the workplace because a large number of people work on teams with peers who are like us, but who are also competing with us for scarce resources…. There are so many different dimensions on which we compare ourselves to others,” she says. “And when you are working with people who are similar to you in many respects,” it’s especially easy to make those comparisons. 

Researchers, Melwani adds, have called envy “one of the most destructive emotions because when you feel envious, you want what the other person has. And you will go quite far to get it.” These actions, sometimes referred to as “harming behavior,” include undermining a colleague’s ability to work  — such as refusing to share important data or sharing data known to be incorrect — or attempting to hurt a colleague’s reputation within the organization by putting him down in a meeting or spreading gossip. 

Life Is Unfair

One major reason to engage in harming behaviors is to redress an individual’s feeling that he or she is being treated unfairly. The goal of the harming behavior then becomes to restore a sense of fairness. 

Jennifer Mueller, a professor at the University of San Diego School of Business Administration, co-authored a paper titled, “Does Perceived Unfairness Exacerbate or Mitigate Interpersonal Counterproductive Work Behaviors Related to Envy?” She and co-author Yochi Cohen-Charash conclude that higher levels of envy and alleged unjust treatment do in fact result in higher levels of harming behavior, especially among “high self-esteem” individuals — those with a well-developed sense of personal worth and ability.

“Suppose your supervisor gives your coworker a raise and not you, a raise you feel was given for an arbitrary reason,” says Mueller. “You would be more likely to undermine your co-worker as a means of expressing this hostility.” As for the high self-esteem individuals, “It’s the narcissism effect,” she notes. “Not only is the raise given to the other person unfairly, but you feel you should be getting [an even higher raise] because you believe you deserve it.” 

“It’s the narcissism effect. Not only is the raise … to the other person unfair, but you feel you should be getting [an even higher raise] because you believe you deserve it.” –Jennifer Mueller

Schweitzer cites three factors that fuel envy: First is a situation where one person is out-performed by another – “somebody does better than you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fair or unfair process that determines this. Even a fair process will trigger envy,” he says. Second, the domain is “self-relevant” — a domain the envier cares about, such as an office setting. “When people are motivated to succeed at work, their identity is wrapped up in their workplace performance.” Third, the situation revolves around “a reference point – such as one’s neighbor, the person in the cubicle next to you or a colleague who started in the company the same year as you did. That’s when envy can be most intense.” Consulting firms and investment banks — where a certain number of people with similar qualifications and experience are often hired in the same year and consequently serve as a social comparison for each other — are classic cases of environments that can breed envy.  

In a research paper titled, “When Better Is Worse: Envy and the Use of Deception”which focuses in part on the influence of envy in a negotiation setting – Schweitzer and co-author Simone Moran write that “feelings of envy are more intense when the outperformer is someone similar to the target individual, when the outperformed person has suffered a setback, and when the discrepant outcomes are perceived as resulting from an unfair procedure.”

It doesn’t help that organizations “often expect employees to collaborate with and trust the same co-workers with whom they compete for promotions and raises,” Schweitzer and co-authors Jennifer Dunn and Nicole E. Ruedy point out in a paper titled, “”It Hurts Both Ways: How Social Comparisons Harm Affective and Cognitive Trust.” Nor does it help that many organizations “routinely compare employees with each other” by, for example, ranking them and/or publicly recognizing them for special achievements. One study cited in the paper estimates that more than 60% of organizations use a competitive reward system. “Individuals are likely to compare their accomplishments with those of their colleagues, not only when their managers formally engage in comparison processes, but also on their own,” according to the authors.

Other researchers point to additional characteristics of the envy dynamic. Leigh Thompson, a professor at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, has conducted research showing that people are likely to feel more envious of colleagues in their own organizations as opposed to an external organization. That means that a person “who is envious of the superstar in the office next door is probably not going to cite that colleague’s work,” a behavior that ends up hurting both parties, she says. Even more importantly, the organization as a whole can be harmed when one team member feels envious of another “because the whole point of being on a team – which is to cross fertilize one another, learn from one another, have the sum be greater than the parts” — is lost, Thompson adds.  

UNC’s Melwani suggests other characteristics that can inspire envy, including a need to be powerful or establish social dominance. In addition, “people who are low in EQ [emotional intelligence] who can’t manage their ability to reconcile differences might have a high level of envy and not be able to dampen it.” (EQrefers to one’s ability to build relationships by understanding other people’s emotions and motivations as well as one’s own.)

Culture is also relevant to any discussion of envy, Melwani adds. “Some cultures enable envy more than others. In the U.S. and western European countries where we have a very individual focus, envy is an emotion that is seen as being destructive. You would rarely tell people to their faces that you are envious of them.” In a lot of other cultures, including the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, “envy is a part of life. People might wear the evil eye pendant to ward off negative thoughts,” she states, adding that many of her students “will say that in their country, they never express happiness because they don’t want others to be envious of them. Culture plays a big role in how we interpret, and behave toward, envy.”

A ‘Clear Path to Success’ 

Envy, however harmful it can be to workplace dynamics, can also be constructive if an employee who envies the success of a colleague uses that emotion to motivate herself to improve her own performance. “When people see a clear path to success, they will be inspired to work harder,” says Schweitzer. “They believe they can do it, too – become employee of the month, achieve that promotion, reach those sales figures. When people feel their opportunities are blocked, when they don’t see a path forward, that’s when envy becomes destructive.”

“When teams … focus on their individual team goals and less on the organizations’ strategy and goals, feelings of envy get exacerbated. It becomes ‘us versus them,’ when in truth, it’s all ‘us.’” –Jeff Klein

Melwani suggests that the envy employees might feel toward their supervisors is an example of benign envy. “It doesn’t have to be your manager; it could be someone with a different status than you, someone who has more tenure or whom you respect for other reasons. Then the feeling is, ‘I’m happy for this person, and I wish I could do that.’ Benign envy is very motivational in a positive way.”

Envy can also be benign if people are able to get beyond “feeling like they are coming up short and focus instead on a domain or situation in which they have experienced a success or have performed well,” says Thompson, author of a book titled, Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration. “We refer to it as ‘self-affirmation.’ It’s to remind yourself that you aren’t chopped liver.” In some circumstances, envy can be “a wake-up call,” an awareness that perhaps “I have not been at the top of my game, or that I have not begun to tap my potential. Now that there is a new hotshot on the team, I am motivated to rise to the occasion.”

It goes back again to the idea of social comparison, Thompson adds. There is “upward social comparison,” such as comparing oneself to the CEO of a company; “downward social comparison,” such as comparing yourself to people who live in poverty, and “lateral comparison, which is where you can learn the most,” she says. Comparing yourself to somebody in your organization who is your equal – “rather than someone who is the equivalent of the varsity team captain – presents an opportunity for improvement.” 

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.”