While jealousy might feel like a private emotion, when it seeps out in the workplace it can have significant impacts on culture.
Jealousy is one of those emotions we can’t escape. And it can easily overcome us in the workplace. It crops up when someone gets a promotion over you; when the boss starts showing favoritism towards a particular employee; or when we feel we’re getting less praise and recognition for our efforts in comparison to others.
While it’s relatively impossible to suppress these feelings, it is crucial we know how to manage them because unchecked jealousy can quickly snowball into destructive behaviour that can damage workplace culture.
It’s not just important to know how to keep jealousy at bay within yourself. HR managers and leaders need to know how to identify and quash it in others too. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Where does the jealousy come from?
In a 2001 research article Managing Envy and Jealousy in the Workplace, Kim Dogan, principal at Dogan Pelzar, and the late Robert Vecchio, Franklin D. Schurz professor of management in the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, outline the difference between envy and jealousy.
The former, they say, involves two individuals (Tom is envious of Sally’s promotion) whereas the latter involves a third party of some kind (Tom is jealous of Sally’s relationship with their mutual boss). Both stem from a place of insecurity, they write, and are generally reactions to stress-related concerns.
For example, Tom could be jealous of Sally’s newfound closeness to the boss because he’s worried he’ll be overlooked when it comes to the dividing of responsibilities or development opportunities.
Dogan and Vecchio also note that an individual’s personal life has a strong correlation with the manner in which they respond to workplace stressors.
“For example, a person may have experienced strong feelings of competitiveness in childhood (such as severe sibling rivalry)… [and] a person who has frequently experienced envy or jealousy outside of the workplace may be more prone to these feelings in dealing with coworkers and supervisors,” they write.
“Jealousy is a mirror to that inner world of desire that has been unfulfilled.” – Karen Gately
Dogan and Vecchio cite job insecurity as the perfect breeding ground for jealousy. If this was the case in 2001, it must be even more true today. They say the element of competition that’s introduced when headcount drops can cause people to feel “threatened by management and their co-workers because they’re questioning who may be next to go”.
Jealousy can bring a variety of other destructive behaviours with it, says Caryn Walsh, organisational development strategist and team building specialist.
“People who are jealous very seldom keep that jealousy to themselves. It tends to come out in their behaviours, such as snide or cutting comments or passive aggressive behaviours,” says Walsh.
She says such behaviour can result in employees being overly critical of one another (to their face or behind their backs) or they might be resistant towards collaborating with or assisting them, meaning opportunities for innovation are hampered. In the most extreme cases, Walsh says it could even lead to a team member sabotaging someone’s work or causing a normally positive workplace culture to feel off balance.
“If morale is low, that can be detrimental to the outcomes of the entire team,” says Walsh. “Goals might be affected or compromised. Ultimately, that leads to an unhealthy and toxic workplace culture.”
A preventative measure
“Jealousy is a mirror to that inner world of desire that has been unfulfilled,” says Karen Gately, founder of HR consultancy Corporate Dojo.
“Most of us will feel jealous but we’re very hesitant to admit it. We’re more likely to acknowledge that we feel hard done by or mistreated. It takes a pretty emotionally intelligent person to be able to say, “Ooh, I feel a bit of envy coming on”. If you can see that emotion, you can start to unpack it.”
It’s a completely normal emotion to experience, says Gately. It’s how you deal with it that matters most.
Leaders and HR professionals play an important part in shaping individuals’ responses to jealousy, she says.
“The more we can properly understand the aspirations of the people in our teams – what they’re hoping to achieve in their work life – and the more we’re coaching and supporting them, the less likely jealousy will arise.”
For example, when Sally is promoted over Tom, Tom’s manager will be able to nip his jealousy in the bud by saying, “I know you might have thought this role would go to you, but here’s our plan to develop you and here’s when we think you’ll get to where you want to be”.
“If someone feels they’ve been overlooked for a promotion two or three times [and it’s not acknowledged by management], that person can start to feel seriously sidelined,” says Gately. “Having an open conversation about this means those feelings can be put to the side.”
Gately adds: “It’s about creating a cultural environment, that HR can lead, where there’s an awareness that these emotions exist in the workplace paired with ongoing coaching conversations… that way we’re proactively getting in front of the jealousy.”
Turning jealousy into motivation
Well managed jealousy can act as a motivational push, suggests Nihar Chhaya, president of PartnerExec, in an article for the Harvard Business Review. However, it can just as easily derail one’s career progression efforts. So, how do you find that sweet spot?
Chhaya says it’s about managing your feelings as soon as they crop up – he points to 2019 research which shows that most people experience the majority of their jealousy before something happens rather than after it has occurred.
The research, published in the journal of Association for Psychological Science, highlights that it’s common for humans to experience heightened emotions about future events – our imaginations often run wild and many of us have a natural tendency to lean towards negative thinking.
So when you hear news that results in a pang of jealousy – say, a colleague has been given a pay raise when you’ve been working equally as hard as them – Chhaya says it’s best to acknowledge the feeling but not let it fester.
“When envy grips you, if you begin to “feel bad about feeling bad,” you essentially turn a human emotion we all feel into even more painful self-loathing and shame,” he writes.
For HR professionals coaching an employee through this experience, he suggests encouraging them to examine why they felt a pang of envy in the first place.
What can be learnt from that? Is there room to improve? With the answers to these questions in hand, HR professionals can work with leaders to create a concrete plan of action, be that a development plan, clarity around pay scales or new/more responsibilities.
Slaying the green-eyed monster
One way to steer jealousy into a more positive place is to identify those who are high performers (and therefore likely to be the victims of workplace jealousy) and create mentor roles for them to step into.
“Great organisations are those that have a mentor or buddy system,” says Walsh.
Formal, cross-organisational mentorship is important, she adds, because it not only gives the jealous employees the opportunity to learn something valuable from those they might consider to be doing better than them, but it’s also a safe and helpful avenue for them to vent.
“If you’ve got a situation where someone feels jealous because they were passed over for a job, for example, they might be able to go to their mentor to talk about it,” says Walsh. “They can talk about it and the mentor can put a framework in place to help them to get the job they want in the future.”
Gately says mentorship can also act as an important reality check.
“If you go to a trusted mentor and you’re peeved at somebody, but you’re actually just jealous, they’re more able to hold up the mirror and say, ‘What’s this really about? Because it seems more like you’re disappointed.’”
Walsh adds that it’s important to implement bystander training in order for other colleagues to be able to call out jealous behaviour before it gets out of hand.
Jealousy has a long tail when it’s not addressed, says Gately. “While we might be able to roleplay that we’re not jealous, it will rear its ugly head at some point and it is evident to other people because there can be a shift in our body language or our energy levels, or our mindset and emotions in relation to that other person.”
She encouraged HR professionals to ask employees this question: “Are you going to let it inspire you to get to where you want to be? Or will you let it eat you away?”