Are employees a little too green with envy?

Connections with co-workers can help prevent undermining behaviour, finds study
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/08/2011

It happens all the time in the workplace — a colleague is promoted from the cubicle to the office; two co-workers have lunch together every day; or an employee is presented with a reward. The result is envy. And if envious individuals are unable to reduce their feelings, it can lead to undermining social behaviour such as malicious gossip, people giving the silent treatment, information being withheld or work being deliberately slowed down.

However, employees are less likely to act on their feelings of envy for two reasons — if they socially identify with their co-workers and if norms discourage the undermining behaviour, according to a new study.

“Social identification is almost like a glue, an antidote, so it humanizes people,” said Michelle Duffy, a professor at the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and lead author of Why and When Envy Leads to Social Undermining: Development and Tests of a Social Context Framework.

“You still might envy them, you might resent them, but feeling connected to them in some way, or close to them, makes it really hard for you to harm them, even if you resent them.”

The research team from the University of Minnesota, Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., Georgia State University in Atlanta and the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver conducted two field studies.

They first asked 160 workers at an American hospital to rate their reactions to a series of statements regarding envy, affinity with colleagues and comfort with subversive acts. After eight months, they were surveyed again, this time about undermining activities.

The survey showed people experiencing feelings of envy were significantly more likely to report committing sabotage if they experienced weak relationships with co-workers. On the other hand, envious participants reported low sabotage incident rates when they felt more strongly connected to their colleagues.

In a second study, 247 business students at an American university were divided into workgroups. They completed a series of questionnaires throughout the semester and rated their level of envy along with their connections with their group members and incidences of sabotage carried out by themselves and others.

The results showed students who reported feelings of envy and low levels of identification with their workgroups were significantly more likely to report committing acts of sabotage when they belonged to groups that reported high rates of sabotage as a whole.

Envy can be about good people doing bad things

Workplace sabotage related to envy is not a matter of bad people doing bad things, it’s a matter of good people sometimes acting on their feelings to do bad things, said Duffy. And it’s about moral disengagement, where people stop regulating themselves, such as stealing from a company to help their family or blaming the victim.

“They kind of allow themselves to make it OK,” she said. “If you identify with your colleagues and feel some team identification, you basically don’t do this — you don’t harm people in response to envy. There’s no relationship between envy and harm-doing when people socially identify and the culture is not aggressive.”

Moral disengagement is basically about rationalizing or justifying causing harm to others, said Karl Aquino, a professor at theSauder School of Business at UBC and co-author.

“We think of reasons why a person deserves to be harmed. Or how, ‘Really, what I’m doing is for the greater good,’ or ‘They deserved it.’ Any set of thoughts that allows us to make us feel better about harming other people.”

Weak norms for undermining in the social context can serve as a second defusing mechanism that weakens the relationship between moral disengagement and social undermining behaviour, found the study. In the workplace, there are strong norms against not harming others, such as codes of ethics or workplace rules, said Aquino. There are also norms that are dysfunctional, such as people engaging in gossip or suppressing the performance of colleagues.

“You’re in an environment where that happens and when it happens, it becomes more acceptable,” he said.

There’s also a potential spillover effect of envy that leads a person to undermine others in general, not just objects of envy, found the study.

“It’s that moral disengagement thing — suddenly you feel that everyone is a deserving target in this, not just the one person,” said Duffy.

What employers can do

Envy on its own is not necessarily a negative thing in the workplace, said Duffy, as it can lead to improved performance.

“Envy is really natural even though we don’t talk about it, so I wouldn’t even worry about getting rid of envious feelings — it’s what people do with them.”

Envy is going to happen, it’s a very human experience and workplaces are competitive, said Aquino.

“It’s not like you can make it go away, so you can minimize its impact,” he said. “What helps is to develop a culture in which people are trying to help each other succeed.”

So employers can promote healthy competition among people but, at the same time, try to create a sense of cohesion among employees, said Duffy.

“Anything that an employer can do to emphasize that human connection among people can go a long way… especially now — people are so busy, so rushed, we don’t even have time to talk to our colleagues. Maybe that shouldn’t be viewed as wasting time and chatting and that there’s a purpose to spending some time, getting to know people, connecting. Then it’s like a business issue too, it’s not just social.”

Managers should also consider team-building strategies to ensure all of their employees are engaged in the group dynamic.

“Some of the things (that) make it harder in modern organizations is the fact we have a lot of work being done remotely, we have flexible schedules… those are all things that work against social identification,” said Aquino.

It is also important those in charge don’t give incidents of undermining by workers a free pass, said Duffy.

“Once it starts, the tendency is for it to spread.”

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