Envy feels ugly. It’s the feeling that nobody likes to admit. And in the workplace, as in all areas of life, it can be toxic. Where there is envy, there is no more solidarity. And once envy has arisen, resentment is no longer so far away. Envy can still be meant nicely: “I envy you – but I’m also happy.” If there is resentment, it’s all over.
This is what happened to my friend Maria, a few years ago. She worked long and hard to get the first leadership position. But that was what her colleague had done too. The company chose Maria – and then all hell broke out. The colleague first secretly intervened in the work of the new department head, then she claimed in front of higher-ranking employees that the whole team thought Maria was unsuitable. The situation soon escalated, a superior yelled at those involved – and in the end it turned out that the claim was fictitious. The colleague was transferred, Maria stayed. “I felt unwanted,” she tells me today. She also suffered mentally from the situation.
Envy creates distance
“Man fears the consequences of his own envy,” wrote the anthropologist George M. Foster 50 years ago, and: “He fears the consequences of the envy of others.” Because envy is the basis of enmity. It can end in aggression and violence capable of destroying societies, writes Foster.
In everyday life, envy can destroy good working conditions: It is not that easy to work with people you envy. Employees of a hospital reported to a research team led by organizational psychologist Michelle Duffy that they were more prone to small acts of sabotage when they were envious. The effect diminished, however, when the relationship with the envied was better.
Judith Mangelsdorf holds a doctorate in psychology and heads the German Society for Positive Psychology. She says: “Envy and resentment lead above all to the fact that we keep our distance emotionally from the people concerned.” This distance has a function: “Since we can usually change little in the situation at the moment of being jealous, we evaluate that Opposite and distance ourselves to protect our self-worth. “
Envy harms everyone involved
We are not happy to admit that. Because envy destroys the image we have of ourselves. Much easier to handle are pride, greed, anger. We can justify them to ourselves: it was the circumstances.
But envy? It is defeat and lack of size at the same time. Envy is weakness. We failed. The feeling therefore harms everyone involved: the envious, the envied, the whole team.
The envy, Invidia, is considered a mortal sin in the Catholic faith, a particularly serious offense. Envy is arguably the one that is the least fun. And it’s one we hate to admit to ourselves.
Unfortunately, Wilhelm Busch was wrong: envy is not the most sincere form of recognition. Envy is the lowest form of self-pity. Another pulls the great job ashore, the best friend has found his dream woman, a friend of mine has just bought an apartment and the family next door is already on vacation again. Envy is a feeling that can be contagious in every person, first people envy one person – then everyone else too.
Envy is also an opportunity
But it doesn’t have to be like that. The psychologist Judith Mangelsdorf says: “Envy and resentment also offer great opportunities. Both show us what our longings are. “
The advice of our experts can help to deal with this feeling more consciously in the future.
Does positive psychology have an approach for us that can counteract these feelings?
Judith Mangelsdorf: First of all, be aware when a situation arises in which you feel envious without devaluing yourself or others. What exactly is it that you envy? What longing is there at this moment? Then ask yourself what you can proactively do to get one step closer to fulfilling this longing. In this way, envy can become the chance for sustainable change.
How can I deal with it when I feel envious myself?
Lena Kuhlmann: Envy is a feeling we all know. And it’s helpful: we can learn a lot about ourselves if we admit the feeling. Then we come to the next step: we cannot change others, but we can change our thoughts and our actions. So let’s take a closer look: What are we really missing? How can we achieve this goal? Those who are very often jealous and suffer from it can additionally strengthen their self-confidence through targeted exercises and thus reduce feelings of inferiority.
How can I turn the feeling of envy into something positive?
Kristin Woltmann: First of all, when it comes to envy, it is important to recognize that there is ultimately a fear behind it: It is the fear of not achieving what the other has achieved.
Otherwise we wouldn’t have to be jealous! We can consciously use this fear for our work or business and turn it into good questions that move us forward:
What else do I need to achieve the same thing? What am I missing? And do I want these successes at all or is there another hidden wish behind it?
Accordingly, envy is a very good learning partner for our own growth if we recognize and use the potential behind it.
What can leaders do to deal with envy and resentment in their team?
Katrin Grunwald: When executives notice envy and resentment in the team, they should definitely get to the bottom of the cause. Does it have to do with very personal beliefs of individual team members or have their own (unconscious) actions also triggered envy in the team? In both cases, a personal conversation with the team members concerned helps to find out more.
When it comes to personal beliefs, it is often the case that behind envy there is low self-worth and insecurity. Here you can see how the team member can build on their own successes and resources.
But sometimes it is your own actions that trigger envy, like promoting certain team members. Here it is important that team members feel seen, heard and valued so that there is less envy and resentment in the team.