The contemporary view of envy is that it is little more than a superficial social vice. But such a trivialised view is not shared by those who have experienced envy in the workplace. There, it is far more than just a desire for another’s material possessions or job. It is the heavily disguised resentment another person carries deep within themselves towards anyone he or she perceives to have the potential for a promising and fulfilling career.
Envy is a complex disorder. The envying person often feels consumed by an intense hatred for what they perceive is missing in their lives. They truly believe it is located in someone else’s life so they set out to destroy it – not because they want the position or status for themselves, but because they don’t want the other to have it.
The relief is only temporary once the envied individual has been successfully attacked and destroyed, because what the envier wants is to remove the anger from within himself. The source of his torment is not in what he envies, but in himself.
Living with malevolence
I recall a situation I encountered when I did not know much about the psychopathology of envy. I had been promoted within my department and, instead of congratulating me, my colleague said: “Oh, professor J likes the blondes”. He didn’t make any referrals to our department for at least a year.
Living with such malevolence is very depressing for the one on the receiving end because, in the workplace, it occurs on an ongoing basis and has to be tolerated daily. Unlike with an envious friend, it isn’t possible to sever all contact.
The culture of work can also make it worse. Management can stifle the work and curb the enthusiasm of subordinates to preserve their own status and salary. It’s possible, in some circumstances, that competition is good. But if some people are preoccupied with bringing others down, that is not healthy for an organisation.
To give an example, a friend of mine worked in marketing for a TV channel. Her work team was halved which doubled her workload. Because of this she had to work longer hours to keep up. One of her colleagues innocently told the marketing manager how conscientious my friend was, which resulted in her being hauled up in front of HR, given a verbal warning about mismanagement of hours and sent on a time management course.
What can be done?
Unfortunately, short of resigning, it’s hard to do much about envy in the workplace if you’re on the receiving end. The envied individual typically becomes increasingly disheartened about their work for, every time they survive an envious attack, the more sadistic the envier becomes.
On the other hand, if we recognise ourselves as being envious in the workplace, action can be taken. News of a colleague’s good fortune can send us spiralling into a black hole of depression. It poisons our confidence and undermines our sense of worth. But facing this “green-eyed monster” can also tell us important things about ourselves – mainly that we need to change. Seen this way, envy can be a powerful motivator to seek professional counselling. This will point us in the right direction, to the belief that there is that possibility within our reach to change.
Of course favouritism at work certainly stirs up envy. The “organisational family”, with its particular hierarchy of senior adults in charge, divided resources of time, affection and money, carries echoes for all of us of our family background.
We need to talk about it
Envy in the workplace is difficult to manage. We spend some 40 hours a week at work, only to go home and torment ourselves even further by conducting a post-mortem of our day. Part of this drama is to conceal or deny these feelings, and that makes things worse. Repressed envy inevitably resurfaces in a stronger form.
We are not used to talking about envy in the workplace, yet it is there, woven into the fabric of every institute, college, and organisation. It affects the mood and morale of employees and, ultimately, it is one of the causes of employee disengagement and loss of productivity.