Two leaders walk out of a meeting. One just closed a major account and the other congratulates him for the win. Once the congratulator is out of earshot, the closer turns to his colleague and says, “He was green with envy before, and now he’s sucking up to me because he wants in on my account. He wants all the glory, but I worked hard for it. Now he knows how he makes the rest of us feel when he brags about his cushy life.”
I watched a similar interaction take place at one of my client’s office. In one sentence, the closer both relished the envy of the congratulator, and envied the successes the congratulator had previously achieved. But if the closer were being honest, he might have said something more like, “I feel inadequate compared to him, and I want him to feel inadequate too. That’s why I don’t want him to have any part in what I’ve just won.”
Envy is often born out of deep feelings of inadequacy. We resent the people we feel inferior to for what they have, what we want, or what we feel we deserve. We also tend to dislike ourselves for having these feelings in the first place. In an attempt to combat our emotions, we draw self-gratifying comparisons. Though human, when leaders behave in this way, they create a culture in which putting others down builds themselves up. Such cultures can be incredibly destructive.
According to researcher Bruna Martinuzzi, envy not only negatively impacts company cultures, it also damages team morale and, ultimately, leads to employee disengagement. Odd currencies, like the square footage of an office or the meetings one gets invited to, can come to symbolize status and breed feelings of entitlement or distrust. Unchecked, these emotions can fuel people to engage in irrational fights for “fairness,” turning trivial disparities into issues of basic justice (“If she gets to go to the annual offsite, why don’t I?”).
This not only shifts attention away from more important work, it also fails to address the deeper problem: what happens when we base our sense of wellbeing on how much we stack up to others, or waste time making sure they don’t stack up to us. It is no surprise, then, that the stronger the feelings of envy, the less dedicated and productive the employee.
To break this cycle, leaders must replace the narrative of comparison (“I deserve what you have”) with the narrative of goodwill (“I’m delighted for what you have, and grateful for what I have”). By no means is this an easy shift to make. But the people you lead will never be fully engaged or discover a gratifying sense of purpose if you don’t make doing so a priority. To create cultures of cohesion, trust, and openness, you must first recognize and curb your own envious behaviors.
Here are three ways to begin.
Set the example you want others to follow.
Most people dismiss envy as a form of immature pettiness. When a junior high schooler displays it, that may be true. But when a leader is envious, it’s toxic. That’s why it’s important not to downplay your envy as a “bad habit.” If left unacknowledged, it can breed a culture of contempt.
Leaders who model envious behavior reinforce zero-sum thinking on their teams by showing people that is it okay to vie for what they want at any cost. When you encourage this kind of culture, one in which the success of others provokes envy instead of support, you end up with a group of people who are constantly comparing themselves to others. As a result, they may prioritize winning against their team over winning with their team. Further, they will struggle to find lasting contentment in their roles and be genuinely happy about group achievements.
To simply say “stop being envious” here would be reductive. Leadership is a costly endeavor, and at times, it is bound to make you feel bad about yourself and those you lead. Your mistakes are public. Your decisions misunderstood. Your status sought after by others. But when these things start to overwhelm you, try your best not to resort to unhealthy comparisons. Take a breath and talk to a trusted ally who can help you regain perspective. Whether you’re feeling envy or on the receiving end of it, talking to someone about it will allow you to gain an objective take on the situation, neutralizing distorted views that come from unhealthy comparison.
Learn to be satisfied with what you do have and accept what you do not.
As a leader, you have disproportionate influence over the emotional wellbeing of your team. When you feel envy, fail to address it, and instead, evoke similar feelings in others, you may sooth your ego for the moment, but over time, you will destroy the very admiration you seek and damage team morale.
But rather than examine the source of their envy, many leaders reflexively attempt to raise themselves up by provoking envy (whether consciously or not) in others. Things like casually mentioning your new luxury car, name dropping top executives you’ve met with, or bragging about your child’s success can lead others to feel inadequate. Even behaviors that appear supportive, like lavishing one team member with praise in front of their peers, can be used as a power play, reminding everyone who’s boss.
To avoid this behavior, identify and address your feelings of inadequacy the moment they are triggered. The next time you feel inferior to the achievements or privileges of others, turn your attention back to yourself rather than lingering in unhealthy comparison. Try to identify the source of your feelings of inadequacy by asking:
- What do they have that makes me feel less than them?
- What void do I believe having it would fill?
- What do I believe would happen if they didn’t have it?
Once you identify the root of your emotions, you can change them. For example, you may speculate that your fellow leader was assigned a project because your boss thinks they’re more competent than you, even though you have no evidence to prove it. Rather than stewing in resentment, go to the source and check in with your boss. You may find that your assumptions were completely inaccurate. Getting down to the source of your feelings will help you shift your focus from something you can’t control (your boss’s motives) to something you can control (your interpretation of your boss’s motives).
This process of self-examination will help mute your original impulse to feel or provoke envy. Replace it with gratitude. Instead of pouting over why you didn’t get the project, congratulate your colleague, wish them well, and offer any help you can. Instead of flaunting your successes, use them to buy dinner for team members who are working late. Learning to flip the script will help you manage your envy should a similar situation arise in the future.
Respond to inbound envy with kindness, not bitterness.
Leaders often receive envy they don’t want. What most visibly sets leaders apart from their colleagues is often the status that comes with their role. In the eyes of others, leaders may appear to get special “privileges,” including a higher salary and a greater say in making important decisions. This means that whoever is in charge will, at one point or another, feel the unenviable envy of others, and it will likely hurt.
In his research, author Mark Stein suggests that when members of an organization compare what they have or who they are to what a leader has or who a leader is, it evokes both a sense of inferiority and a desire to attack and destroy. This is particularly true when the envious person depends on the leader for advancement.
As a leader, these situations may make you feel isolated and misunderstood. You may see people leaving work early or going out for happy hour with peers, while you are stuck at the office with a full inbox. Sarcastic jabs from direct reports like, “That’s why you get paid the big bucks,” may even make you feel bitter about your obligations, and resentful of those who enjoy freedoms you don’t, and who fail to see the burdens you bear.
But, remember, part of your job is to stay objective, and when you trigger unwanted envy in, or from, those you lead, you are responsible for helping them navigate their emotions. Don’t fault them for not fully appreciating the demands of your role, or misperceiving “how good you have it.” Instead, invite compassion by showing some vulnerability. It’s okay to give them a glimpse of the demands you contend with, as long as you maintain a healthy boss-employee boundary. Be open about the challenges you face without venting or complaining. For example, during stressful times, you might clear the air by saying, “I need you to be patient with me over the next few weeks while I’m getting ready for a board presentation. I’m pretty anxious about it, so I may not be as available as usual.” It is your openness, not your bitterness, that will help your team empathize with you.
What makes envy so destructive is the insidious way we’ve normalized it. Whether we’re begrudging our boss’s vacation photos on Instagram, or embellishing our Friday night plans to peers, fewer measuring devices have more destructive power than those we use to compare ourselves to others. Once people start to rely on this measurement to define their own value, self-interest and self-protection choke out generosity, humility, and resilience. If you want to manage a team of people who are capable of supporting one another, admitting their own mistakes, asking for help, and persevering through setbacks, make a commitment to building a culture of support and goodwill. Doing so will free people to compare themselves only to their own goals, and more importantly, free you to help them reach those goals.
Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.