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Let’s admit it, we all indulge ourselves in a bit of jealousy or envy every now and then. The old dogma has always been that the most complex aspects of human emotions are driven by culture; Germans and English are thought to be straight-laced whereas Italians and Indians are effusive”, states the study of ‘The Evolutionary Psychology of Envy and Jealousy‘.

Jealousy and envy are quite common

The emotion is so common that the first murder in the Bible is committed because of envy: Cain kills Abel because he is jealous and envious that God is more pleased by Abel’s offerings than by his own.

According to the above-mentioned study, the feelings of envy and jealousy evoked when someone is better off than you. Contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton expands:

“One of the things about envy is that we don’t tend to envy everybody. We don’t always envy people who have more than us. For example, I think it would be highly unusual for anyone [in the lecture room] to envy the Queen. Enev though she has a lot more than most of us. She is simply too remote a figure to start to envy her.

“But it’s much more likely, in fact, it’s quite likely that we might envy someone we were at school with who’s got a slightly bigger house than us. Smaller than Buckingham Palace but bigger than our own.”

Alain de Botton

The paradox can often be resolved by evolutionary considerations which predict selective jealousy. 

These two words – envy and jealousy – are used interchangeably.  In either case, the “target” is usually someone who is perceived to be better off in some respect than you or whose access to resources is better than yours.

Envy in work environment

Envy in the professional environment can be three-fold, writes Quy Huy, the professor of strategic management.

  • individual level
  • intergroup level
  • organisation level

At the individual level, envy may manifest itself when employees see fellow co-workers being promoted or praised, or having a better job or pay than themselves. On occasions, there may be reasons to feel slighted, if mutual effort has been put into a task or project but only one person has been recognised. Similar feelings may arise, if a co-worker is promoted for seemingly reaching higher goals than those of others.

At the intergroup level, envy is even more opaque and arises among departments or teams. For example, the engineering department may feel envious of the marketing department if the latter is perceived to enjoy better access to resources.   Similarly, an innovation team may become the target of envy when its innovation output receives more recognition than other teams working in the same project.   Most of us have heard these complaints before.

At the organisation level, envy may arise when senior executives of companies compare themselves to one another, ranking their pays and bonuses in relation to those of others; competing for the title of CEO with the biggest company size or the biggest pay. Research has consistently proved that narcissism can affect CEO behaviour in destructive ways.

Actual reasons for the envy are sub-conscious

Jealousy is a motive of immense potency. You are often consciously aware of being jealous or envious of someone. But sometimes the actual reasons for the envy are buried in your unconscious and disguised by rationalisations.

Ironically, what you really value in life is more often revealed by asking yourself who you are jealous of rather than asking yourself directly “what do I value.” 

what you really value in life is more often revealed by asking yourself who you are jealous of rather than asking yourself directly “what do I value.” 

Is it possible to harness envy?

In his essay ‘Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Aim’ (1784), Immanuel Kant compares human beings to trees in a forest:

“…precisely because each of them seeks to take air and sun from the other [they] are constrained to look for them above themselves, and thereby achieve a beautiful straight growth; whereas those in freedom and separated from one another, that put forth their branches as they like, grow stunted, crooked and awry.”

Immanuel Kant

Harnessing envy in two steps

The emotion of envy – both on a personal level and within the organisation – can be managed and even channeled to become an energising emotion rather than a destructive one, argues Marina Biniari of Aalto University.

Dealing with and harnessing of envy and jealousy requires some metacognitive skills and is an invaluable tool in a toolbox of emotional intelligence.

1. Acknowledging

The first step on the path to recovery is the acknowledgment of envy and its potentially harmful role. Middle managers can play an important role in balancing the emotional exchanges between employees. They should focus on empathising with those feeling envious, calming them and helping them to realise a different perspective, perhaps suggesting they emulate the behaviour of those they envy as one way of achieving similar goals say authors in their paper Bringing Honey Out of People: How Managing Envy Helps the Organisational Innovation Process.

2. Imitate

From being an infant on, we learn what it means to be creative human beings by imitation. You might as well do it intentionally and learn in the process.

In business environment, guaranteeing a certain reward for emulating another person or group at the individual or inter-departmental level can be a powerful catalyst for positive behaviour. Linking collaboration with performance rewards will also forge a more positive environment. 

So who you are jealous of?