The suffering with envy – How to deal with feelings of envy in companies
You may also know the feeling that you envy a colleague when he or she has just been promoted, is allowed to lead a new project, or has received a higher salary. You imagine how proud and great the other person must feel. Almost automatically, you compare yourself with this colleague who has something to offer that you consider desirable but which you do not have yourself. This difference and the comparison that comes with it is at the same time also associated with a feeling of lack, which – coupled with anger, rage and sadness – makes envy arise. Experience teaches us that these differences in companies also have far-reaching consequences, as they affect our salary, our career and our self-esteem. It is not without reason that relationships with colleagues are always delicate and observed particularly in terms of preference and disadvantage by the supervisor.
Between destruction and effort
Envy is usually associated with an envious person who does not begrudge anything to the envied, who wants to take away his possessions, spoil it or even want to destroy it. This is the destructive, evil and unpredictable form of envy, which is not for nothing one of the seven deadly sins and is socially ostracized. Against this background, it is not surprising that individual team members can hardly and do not want to talk about it. The aforementioned destructive, feared and socially unaccepted potency of envy also makes it understandable why this feeling is usually hidden behind various forms of behaviour – such as bullying, snappish remarks, devaluation, dissatisfaction, mockery, resentment or irritation.
However, there is also the benign, ambitious-stimulating form of envy, in which one also wants to have what the team-mate is, has or can do. This is not, as with the destructive form, about taking away or begrudging, but about wanting to have too. This form of envy can help team members to reflect on themselves, reassess their abilities and make more effort to get closer to the object of desire, such as promotion.
A psychoanalytical perspective on envy
In order to better understand the envy reaction between colleagues, it is worth taking a look at psychodynamics. From a psychoanalytical perspective, there are a variety of explanations for envy conflicts between colleagues, which can be traced back to the childhood of those involved. One explanatory approach is that of rivalry between siblings, which is associated with the threat to the position of the child in the eyes of the parents and the associated position at the centre of their attention. The child then has the opportunity to identify with the envied sibling by trying to be just as cheeky, we-behaved, hardworking, helpful, creative, interested ect. as its siblings. However, if the child does not succeed, it will increasingly develop characteristics and abilities with which it does not have to compete with the sibling, but can be perceived in his individuality. If taking a closer look at these reactions of envy among siblings, you can see that it mostly hides the deep desire to be noticed and loved by parents. This phenomenon is also omnipresent in everyday working life. It is often found that two direct colleagues are looking for different fields of work or specialize in a certain subject area so that they do not have to compete in the same field for the recognition of their superior. Just as the feeling of envy among siblings increases when one child is preferred by the parents, the situation among colleagues can also be aggravated when one is closer to the superior or is given preferential treatment by him or her. But what can you do as an employee or manager to prevent the destructive envy in the company from spreading?
Tips for employees: Turning destructive envy into constructive envy
Depending on the type of work structure, one’s own personality traits and the strength of one’s self-confidence, as well as the nature of the relationship with one’s superior, the envy reaction in the organisational context is very different. This can either be barely noticeable, express itself in a gnawing, quite intense pain or even manifest itself in a sudden, violent sting.
In order to get to the bottom of your own envy, it is first of all important to question your behaviour in relation to your colleagues and superiors and to check whether a feeling of envy could be concealed behind it. Even if it does not always make sense to tell your colleagues and superiors about your envy, you should not reject this feeling. It is better to be able to recognise, question and understand your own feelings of envy. In the course of psychoanalytical business coaching, it can be helpful to focus on the productive side of envy and to ask yourself what the feeling of envy says about you, with whom you compare yourself, and what motives you might have behind it. The question of whether you can achieve satisfaction with other qualities and abilities and adopt a different perspective in relation to the envied person can also be helpful in this respect. For example, if a colleague is way ahead in project work, you can ask yourself what this requires, what sacrifices the colleague may have to make and whether you really want to do so.
Tips for managers: Social justice and employee involvement
If we think back to our childhood and our destructive feelings of envy towards our own siblings, situations come to mind in which we felt unequally treated, not seen or excluded by our parents. If, on the other hand, we were valued for our individuality and involved in the events, this negative feeling could be alleviated or even transformed into positive envy reactions. These dynamics can also be found in the corporate context. With regard to the way managers deal with their workforce, it has been shown that social injustice and exclusion lead to destructive feelings of envy among colleagues. Socially inclusive behaviour, on the other hand, also leads to productive, admiring envy among colleagues. Accordingly, managers are well advised to value their employees in their individuality, involve them in the process and actively foster their participation. In this way, employees can be given the feeling of being an important, accepted part of the company and the team. In order to limit the negative consequences of social comparisons within the workforce and to promote the positive potential of envy, companies should specifically address the behaviour and problem awareness of their managers. Psychoanalytical business coaching can be a first step in the right direction.
Julia Perlinger, Coach bei DynaMind