Skip to Content

PERSONALITY: Envy in the Workplace

Having just presented a workshop on Building Trust and Credibility in the Workplace, I was impressed by Stephen M.R. Covey’s ability to translate the nice societal value of “trust” into a real effect on speed, cost, efficiency and quality in the workplace.  If trust can have this significant impact, what about other difficult emotions?  Envy, for instance.  What is it and does it indeed impact the bottom line for our departments, teams and organizations? If it does, what can we do about it?

FULLY-ILLUSTRATED-STATS-ENVY_cropWhile envy and jealousy are often used interchangeably, jealousy is the “fear of losing something that one possesses to another person” and envy is the “pain or frustration caused by another person having something that one does not have oneself.” (Wikipedia)  Judith Siegel in Stop Overreacting: Effective Strategies for Calming Your Emotions explains that “we feel envious when someone gets something that we want and think we deserve.”  When people feel that they have been treated unfairly, an immediate emotional response is triggered (Crockett 2009). The result can be the release of such intense and uncomfortable feelings as anger, injustice, deprivation, powerlessness and a desire for the others to fail. (Siegel, 2010). Unchecked, these emotions in the workplace can foster competition, angry outbursts and hurtful verbal attacks, backstabbing, harmful gossip, cynicism, resentment, withholding of information, sabotage and a host of other unproductive, damaging reactions.  Envy and the resulting behaviors create that kind of costly, distrusting work environment that Covey alluded to in his book, The Speed of Trust.

green-eyed-monster1What about your workplace?  How many times have you seen situations where your staff or co-workers are competing for that promotion, pay raise, new project and/or recognition for a job well done?  If you’ve heard your colleagues or staff say, “It is frustrating to see that Diane got that job when there are others here that deserve it more than she does “or “Why does it always seem that Joe gets the kudos at the staff meeting while others are actually doing the hard work that made it happen?,” you’ve heard envy.  The powerful combination of feeling deprived of something you want and powerlessness to change the situation is the driving force behind envy.

So, if I find myself feeling envious, what should I do?

1. Leave “denial” at the door. Recognize that we all are prone to envy from time to time and learn to identify your own physical triggers and feelings when it is present. The most common physical signs include tension in your chest or stomach and/or tightening in the muscles or your neck, back or hands. Pay attention to how your body reacts and its signals. The resulting feelings of anger, deprivation, resentment, neglect or worthlessness may rise up in you as well. Most importantly, you know it is “envy” when those feelings make it impossible to stay focused on your work at hand, for that matter, to concentrate on anything else at all but the strong emotions churning inside you.

2. Give yourself time and space to register and deal with your emotions before you do or say something you’ll regret (fight response) or deny, give in or withdraw (our flight response). Ask yourself, “Am I reacting mainly to an injustice?” “Am I reacting because I feel like there is nothing I can do about it?” or “Am I reacting because I feel ignored, overlooked or deprived of something I think I deserve?”

3. Judge the intensity of these emotions. When the feelings are stronger than the immediate situation may warrant, you may be responding to old beliefs and interactions that occurred in the past. Begin to separate what is an old emotional memory or situation from what is actually happening today. When we can name the emotions, recount memories associated with them and think through the situation, we rob our emotional center of its power to control our actions.

4. Regain perspective. Perhaps what has occurred is unfair and you aren’t going to get what you want or may deserve. Allow yourself to work through the feelings of that loss including anger, sadness, depression and ultimately, acceptance. Ask yourself: Does it really have permanent or irreversible consequences for me? Do I really believe that there will never be another opportunity to make things better for myself? Am I seeing things only as black or white (using words such as “always, never, only” to describe the situation)?

5. Once the emotions are past tense, examine your own goals and progress.  Commit to things you can control and get a new game plan. Negative emotions are always a signal that something is wrong. Look at your situation and determine whether there is a need for something to change or an action to be taken.

As a manager, leader and team coach,

1. Examine your work environment: Does an atmosphere of competition exist?  Do you see the types of behaviors that result from feelings of envy in your department or organization? Being aware and looking for the signs of trouble will allow you to surface and deal with the issues before they have had a chance to snowball. When addressing the negative behaviors, gently suggest the possibility of envy. Help to educate your staff on the impact of this powerful emotion.

2. Look at your own expressions of praise and recognition: Are you being fair? Are you recognizing everyone and not just some? Did you take the time to get your facts straight? Do you have a plan that gives regular feedback or is it spur-of-the moment? How do other employees react when you give public praise?

3. Make fair and just decisions: Do you have a clear delegation or hand off plan? Have you sat with employees to facilitate goal setting and create development plans? Are roles and responsibilities clear? Do you explain the rationale behind your decisions? Do you pay attention to how others are reacting and are you quick to listen and encourage others who may have been left behind?

4. Be a role model: Your employees will trust your actions more than your words. How do you handle your own personal feelings of envy? How do you respond when the department as a whole is overlooked by the organization or passed over for opportunities?

5. Watch out for envy in the storming phase: As a team coach, look for signs of envy in the storming phase. Encourage the team to develop norms, add to their help/hinder list and other ways to address and reinforce the concept of team performance, recognition and task assignments.

No one likes to admit that they might be envious of another person’s success or fortune and worse yet, that these dark feelings could cause actions that might hurt our own success or that of our department or team. But it does have that potential.  What do you think?


If you liked this, you may want to read these:

The Link Between Emotional Awareness and Professional Growth

Are Your Actions Creating a Zone of Rejection Among Your Employees?

The Effect of Trust on Speed and Cost


  • Great article, thanks for the walk through “envy”. It makes sense to look back and then look at the present for explanations of how to separate the now from the past. We were having a discussion yesterday on anxiety and this might be one of the causes for it as well. Any thoughts on how envy might be associated with anxiety? Thanks, Bob

  • Thanks for your comment and question, Bob; sorry it took me so long to reply. I think anxiety is definitely a driver for envy. The root of anxiety is fear and fear of not being able to get the opportunities you have or advance your career because they now have been given to someone else creates envy. I think there is much more pressure out there to make the right decisions and seize every opportunity because we might not get a second chance. That has to create anxiety. What do you think?

Who We Are

An innovative training and employee development firm located in southern Vermont since 1984, we specialize in helping organizations get the most out of their people by raising the bar, inspiring potential and partnering with organizations to build a people-centered, high-engagement culture.

Our Twitter Feed