Mendoza School of Business

Offices’ deadly sin

Published: October 11, 2006 / Author: Donna Nebenzahl

It’s the green-eyed monster, no less insidious and disheartening in our work life than it is in our social life. Let’s face it, we spend half our waking days at work. So when jealousy and envy strike, the workplace is a terrible place to come under its spell.

According to research cited by University of Notre Dame management professor Robert P. Vecchio, who specializes in studying envy in the workplace, 77% of employees surveyed have witnessed jealousy around the office within the past month. To make matters worse, more than half admitted to being directly involved.

“It’s pretty commonly reported,” Mr. Vecchio said. “Often times, it’s about who gets the cushiest or most desirable assignments, who gets promotions.

“The problem is that people feel it’s inappropriate or childish to carry these feelings around.”

So instead of talking about it or looking for ways to cope with it, Mr. Vecchio said, they withhold efforts.

Recent research on loafing in groups, he says, shows those who felt more envy were doing more loafing.

“They’re evening up the score by withholding their contribution,” he said.

At the very least, those who feel envy or jealousy will monitor others’ behaviour to conform to what they’re feeling.

And because there is such a lack of sensitivity about how people feel — a taboo subject in the workplace — there is also a lack of awareness about the impact of jealousy and envy.

It can’t be ignored, said Mr. Vecchio, whose research shows that people who feel envious and resentful express stronger interest in looking for alternative employment.

So where do these feelings come from?

In his survey of more than 100 first-level supervisors, Mr. Vecchio found that lack of consideration from a supervisor fuelled more jealousy and envy among subordinates than did bosses who were perceived as nurturing.

And while a strong work ethic is a great asset in the workplace, there is a downside as far as the green-eyed monster is concerned.

Turns out that people with this attitude about work are also prone to be more envious and jealous in the workplace. In fact, they generally react more emotionally to a variety of office situations.

“These are people who worry more about work. They’re more sensitive to it,” he said. “The other group is the low self-esteemers and the people who think work is very competitive, where people are pitted against each other.”

Women, it seems are more jealous than men, while males express more workplace envy. Mr. Vecchio suspects this is because men are more attuned to threats to competitive standing, while women seem to care more about threats to social relationships.

“Jealousy is actually like a three-way system, in which you have the focal person, then you have the rival. In this case, the rival is working toward gaining advantage in a relationship with a third party.

For instance, a new person who is getting a lot of attention from the boss.

“Envy is only two-party,” he said, and it’s based on competitiveness, as in ‘how do I stand against this person?”

These nasty feelings arise less frequently in large offices than in small, he said, possibly because people are not as possessive in larger groups and because those who work in a big organization are more likely to shrug off inequities as an element of inefficient bureaucracy.

In most cases, envy and jealousy are about the fear of losing social standing.

“Your sense of value is being threatened by the data you’re getting,” Mr. Vecchio said. “I’ve found that people with high self-esteem report fewer problems.”

So can it be fixed?

One obvious way is to bolster your self-esteem, by modifying your thoughts to focus on the good things in your life, Mr. Vecchio said.

And managers, who hold so much power in this area, can work to create more of a team culture, one in which people work co-operatively.

“You could argue that the management of envy underlies a lot of work in management today,” he said. “But no one wants to talk about the management of emotion.

“In reality, there are a lot of emotions and feelings out there.”

So in an workplace setting, managers can create shared purpose through teams and engage in a lot more sharing and decision-making.

“Explain decisions, get input,” he said. “Don’t let people speculate resentfully.

“If something comes up, say you need to make a tough decision, and put possible feelings on the table.”

“Let’s all unite around that decision we need to make.”


The following questions, designed by organizational analyst J. Gerald Suarez, will help you to conduct a self-assessment.

1. Do you feel discomfort because of another person’s promotion?

2. Do you find yourself constantly thinking about what you lack?

3. Do you resent people who do not come to you for help and advice?

4. Do you find that you want to put down people who are more successful than you are?

5. Do you hide or try to ignore your envious feelings from yourself?


Mr. Suarez points out that many managers are often unaware of the effects of their actions in creating an atmosphere that fosters envy. As a manager, he asks:

1. Do you favour some employees over others?

2. Do you stereotype employees?

3. Do you pretend all employees are the same?

4. Do you make verbal comparisons?

5. Do you not pay attention to current employees when a new employee is hired?

If the answers to these questions are yes, it’s time to take stock and rethink your behaviour.

Ran with fact boxes “How Envious are You?” and “Do YouEncourage Envy?”, which have been appended to the story.



Topics: Mendoza