Professor Kriti Jain explains how we can train ourselves to use workplace envy as an opportunity to both better ourselves and increase our appreciation of those around us.
Even the most casual of sports fans have watched Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal play against each other over the years. The two, together, have given us some of the best tennis and if you’ve followed their journey more closely, Wimbledon 2008 readily come to mind. Federer was the undisputed champion at the time, with his successive wins, especially on the grass court, and had been further immortalized by David Foster Wallace’s profile that likened watching him to a religious experience. By this time, Nadal was quickly emerging as a worthy challenger. In that Wimbledon final, after 4 hours 48 minutes, several rain interruptions, long rallies, and tie-breakers, Nadal finally won. Federer was said to be heartbroken. In the documentary Strokes of Genius, made years after the match, Federer commented, “I had to embrace the idea of a rival. In the beginning, I didn’t want to have one.”
We’ve all been in similar situations, perhaps not with such high stakes, but comparable all the same. There’s always that pang when someone does better than us: colleagues who get early promotions, friends who are more social, neighbors with more money, or even family members who seem to be more loved and respected. It’s called envy, and Aristotle described it as the pain at the good fortune of others.
At the heart of envy lies the very human tendency to compare ourselves with others. People typically engage in social comparisons with those whom they perceive to be similar to them and it serves as an easy way to measure where we stand on the social hierarchy of life.
How does our ‘animal’ brain react when we encounter others who might be similar to us but with successes that are grander than our own? Typically, we feel threatened and instinctively try to close the gap. An easy and reactionary way to do this is by pulling those successful others back by belittling them with an attempt to diminish their achievements. We say things like, “Well, she was just lucky,” or “He just got the plum assignment because he plays politics.” We socially undermine them and attribute external reasons for their success instead of acknowledging that they worked hard or are perhaps simply more talented than us. We fragile beings are capable of quite a lot in our efforts to avoid a bruising to our self-esteem.
Being envious is, in fact, damaging to one’s sense of self, not to mention one’s relationships with others. In the extreme, giving way to envy destroys mental and physical health. It can also lead to a downward spiral of behaviors where we try to sabotage others and in the process hurt our own performance. When there is envy within teams, it leads to less cohesion and knowledge-sharing, making the group dysfunctional and more likely to miss opportunities for growth and development.
Yet, envy doesn’t have to be destructive. In fact, that unwelcomed pang can actually signal an opportunity, an invitation to feel a sense of admiration and awe for another person and, in turn, to be inspired.