Being envied in organisations

In this exclusive chapter from a new edited collection 'Envy at Work and in Organizations' (Oxford University Press), W. Gerrod Parrott considers the benefits and threats from being the target of envy at work.

If envy’s effects were contained within a single envious person, there would be little reason for the present volume about envy in organizations. It is envy’s influence on interpersonal dyads and groups that makes it relevant to organizations and the workplace. Although it certainly makes sense to analyze the perspective of the envious individual, envy’s social aspects are evident even at the individual level of analysis: its appraisal involves social comparison; its action tendencies include emulation, social avoidance, and hostility. Envy involves interactions and relationships, and thus organizations. The present chapter focuses on a particularly interesting subset of those who are affected by envy; namely, on the person who is the target of the envy. Envy, even the mere possibility of envy, places the enviable person in a complex and delicate social situation that brings both costs and benefits (Parrott & Rodriguez Mosquera, 2008).

It is a relatively common experience to feel that one is the target of envy. Even small discrepancies can be enviable, and the reasons for being envied are nearly limitless. Within the organization, invidious social comparisons can be based on countless dimensions. Promotions and salaries certainly can attract envy, as can awards, compliments, and other forms of favorable recognition. But there is a multitude of other ways that a person can be perceived as enjoying advantages. Offices can be bigger or brighter and can have better windows or nicer furnishings; travel can be more pleasant or more generously subsidized; workloads can be less onerous or more prestigious. Supervisors can appear to favor certain workers. Newer members may envy the established status and institutional knowledge of longer-term members, who may in turn envy the special treatment accorded to newer members. Those with young children may envy how those less encumbered can take on special projects or travel, while those without family obligations may envy the leniency granted to those whose departures from work have the unselfish excuse of child-care. Because envy can be intensified when social comparisons are otherwise equal, the enviable are not restricted to those at the top of the organization; envy can be even more intense when directed horizontally within organizational levels than it is when directed from lower to higher levels. Finally, the grounds for envy are not restricted to organization-specific circumstances. Personality, happiness, skills, appearance, wealth, health, leisure—all the traits, experiences, and possessions that elicit envy outside the organization may also attract it within. Thus, far from being limited to a few extreme outperformers, the majority of people in any organization are susceptible to being the targets of envy.

This chapter explores how envy affects those who are envied. The first section presents theories and issues that frame this topic. The following three sections address the pleasurable aspects of being envied, the social difficulties that it causes, the ways it threatens the envied person, and the strategies for coping with other persons’ envy. Each of these sections will consider recent research that addresses the social and emotional consequences of being the target of envy, with an emphasis on research that considers envy in organizations.

The Perspective of the Envied Person

Envy, from the perspective of the envied person, has both positive and negative implications. Being the target of envy can be a good thing in the sense that it means that another person perceives the envied person as being superior with respect to a characteristic that is desirable enough to care about. Envy therefore delivers good news by communicating or confirming that one is superior in some way; it brings an acknowledgement that one’s good qualities are recognized by others; it suggests that one has achieved a degree of status or good reputation.

At the same time, being the target of envy can have negative implications. Superiority can disrupt relationships that were grounded on equality. Envious people can be unhappy, dissatisfied, resentful, or hostile, and the target of envy may not only feel bad about being responsible for those effects but may also feel threatened by them. Advantages that are perceived as being unfair may elicit additional discontent and hostility.

In an exploratory study, my colleagues and I asked university students in the United States and Spain to remember and describe a time when they believed that another person may have envied them. We asked them to specify what was envied, who was envious, what signs of envy were noticed, how they reacted to the envy, and whether there were any positive or negative implications (Rodriguez Mosquera, Parrott, & Hurtado de Mendoza, 2010). Examination of these accounts provides an informative picture of the range of experiences that follow from being the target of envy. There was considerable overlap between the accounts from the two cultures (although some differences did emerge, which will be discussed later in this chapter). Given that the reports came from students, it is unsurprising that the most frequent reason for being envied was academic achievement. More surprising was the next-most-common reason, which was to be envied for having multiple advantages that together seemed to constitute a better life that is filled with more fun and fewer worries. Other common causes of envy included having a noteworthy talent, being recognized for an impressive accomplishment, having a better love life, and being more attractive. There did not appear to be any necessity for the causes of envy to have a zero-sum quality; some did (such as winning a particular award, or getting the lead role in a play), but there were plenty of others that had a non-zero-sum nature (such as having many friends, or getting a high score on an exam).

Envy typically was directed toward a person who was similar to the envious person: in almost all cases, the envious person was someone who was known by the target of the envy, such as a friend, fellow student, or roommate, and usually the envious person and the target of the envy were of the same sex (Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2010). The targets of envy were able to describe why they perceived envy; it was usually a deviation from the behavior that would be expected. Most common was a decrease in friendliness (such as social withdrawal or decreased generosity) or a bitter, critical, or sarcastic remark (either directly or in the form of hostile gossip). In other cases, it was a change in talkativeness that seemed to betray envy, either by falling silent or becoming excessively talky. Sometimes the envious person flat out said, “I envy you.” Respondents were not usually able to identify a particular facial expression or nonverbal gesture that signaled envy, although they did sometimes report that they detected an envious expression without specifying what it was.

The most common reaction to being envied was appeasement. Our respondents reported being extra nice to the envious person, giving him or her encouragement, and downplaying their advantage. Another strategy was to repair any damage to the relationship by apologizing, showing sympathy, or conversing. Deflecting attention from the advantage by changing the subject or telling a joke was sometimes tried. In some cases the target of envy distanced themselves from the envious person. It was rare (but not unheard of) for the target of envy to try to increase the envy by drawing attention to their advantage, and gloating.

Respondents in this exploratory study described both positive and negative implications of being the target of envy. The desirable effect that was mentioned most often was increased self-confidence. The most commonly mentioned undesirable effects were interpersonal; respondents worried about damage to the relationship, possibly leading to social isolation and rejection. In sum, these accounts suggest that being the target of envy in everyday life is an ambivalent experience, with the potential for both positive and negative consequences (Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2010).

Useful frameworks for understanding this array of ambivalent experiences have been provided by research in anthropology, social psychology, and the psychology of emotion. In a classic essay on envy, anthropologist George Foster (1972) characterized envy’s positive and negative consequences as falling along two axes. One, the competitive axis, involves increased status for the envied person and increased motivation for the envious person. The other, the fear axis, involves threats and ill-will that tend to be denied by the envious person but nevertheless motivate the envied person to seek protection. Foster’s scheme is relevant to the present chapter in that he considers the target of envy as well as the envious person and points out the mixture of positive and negative implications that face the person who is the target.

The ambivalent position of an envied person has also been addressed in the social psychological literature on social comparison. Exline and Lobel (1999) developed a framework for understanding the range of emotions and motivations that are aroused by being the target of upward social comparisons, which includes not only those being envied but more generally those being perceived as having superior status. Those who compare well to others make downward comparisons that elicit positive affect by satisfying competitive and self-enhancement desires and by relieving anxieties about status and adequacy. Pleasure, reassurance, and pride are among the emotions experienced by outperformers. These positive responses are validated and strengthened by signs (such as envy) indicating that other people also perceive the outperformer’s superiority. Yet, positive affect is not the only outcome of downward social comparisons. Exline and Lobel (1999) argued that distress arises when a person is the target of an upward comparison: the superior person may feel sorry for the inferior person’s unhappiness, and may feel guilty about being the cause; there can be awkwardness and embarrassment surrounding the relationship with the inferior person; and there can be genuine concern about losing the other’s sympathy and cooperation, as well as worry about becoming resented or disliked, and fear of being subjected to hostility and retaliation.

Being the target of envy thus has the potential to elicit a wide range of reactions. Of the many factors that influence which of these reactions will occur on any particular occasion, the most fundamental is the nature of the envy itself. In everyday language, the term envy is applied to a variety of reactions. In several studies, I solicited autobiographical accounts of naturally occurring experiences of envy from several hundred American undergraduate students (Parrott & Smith, 1993; Smith, Parrott, Ozer, & Moniz, 1994). Although certain situational features were consistently present – the students always described a situation in which the respondent focused on another person who was superior in a respect that was important – the emotions experienced clearly varied. Certain common emotional components can be identified (Parrott, 1991). Often the students reported longing for what another person had; the longing sometimes seemed wistful, and other times frustrating. In some reports, the envy seemed to spring from a focus on the envious person’s sense of inferiority, which led to emotions such as sadness (about lacking what another person so conspicuously enjoyed), anxiety (about insecure social status), and despair (about the hopelessness of ever possessing what the envied person possessed). Some reports included significant elements of hostility. The target of envy might be resented for their superiority, which might be perceived as unfair. This resentment might result only in reduced sympathy for the target, but it could take on more serious forms, ranging from cooling a friendship to active dislike or hatred of the target. Some accounts indicated that the envious person tried to resist such hostility; the person might try to direct their frustration away from the target of envy and instead blame the unfairness of circumstances and events; some people reported feeling guilty about their feelings of ill-will.

In a minority of reports, what people described as envy actually had a hopeful quality in which the target of envy provided an example of how to achieve a desirable result and inspired motivation to do likewise. No account of envy consisted solely of this reaction – an episode that did would probably be better labeled as admiration – but these hopeful, admiring feelings were occasionally reported as part of an episode of envy that included one or more of the other responses described above.

In sum, people report a variety of distinguishable emotions when asked to report an experience of envy. It is not uncommon for a report to include more than one of these emotions, so it therefore is helpful to think of envy as an episode having a narrative structure (Parrott, 1991).

The variety of reactions subsumed by the term envy means that the everyday concept allows for a troublesome degree of ambiguity, which scholars have long attempted to clarify by imposing some distinctions. Moral philosophers frequently distinguish envy that is immoral from envy that is morally acceptable. Rawls (1971) therefore distinguished morally acceptable benign envy from immoral envy proper, whereas Neu (1980) distinguished admiring envy from malicious envy, and Taylor (1988) distinguished admiring and emulating forms of envy from malicious envy. Psychologists, more concerned with emotional distinctions than with moral ones, have distinguished types of envy on that basis. Smith et al. (1994), for example, found that envious hostility (including anger, dislike, and hatred) was strongly linked to beliefs that the target’s envy-producing advantage was unfair, whereas envious sadness (including feeling depressed, lacking energy, and low) was strongly linked to beliefs that the target’s superiority gave rise to a sense of personal inferiority. It is noteworthy that forms of envy in which psychologically hostile elements predominate have some correspondence to what philosophers deem malicious and immoral, whereas forms in which inferiority predominate more resemble what philosophers deem benign and moral.

In recent years psychologists have demonstrated that these distinctions are recognized in everyday life and are even given distinct labels in some natural languages. Van de Ven, Zeelenberg, and Pieters (2009) demonstrated reliable differences in Dutch undergraduates’ reports of afgunst (a Dutch word meaning “malicious envy”) and benijden (meaning “benign envy”): reports of afgunst averaged higher belief that injustice had been done; higher feelings of frustration; stronger urges to harm, degrade, speak negatively of, and take from others; and greater hope that the target of envy would meet with some failure. In contrast, reports of benijden on average involved more admiration of the target, stronger motivation to engage in self-improvement, stronger urges to compliment and be near the target, and greater hope that the target would do well and be a friend. These researchers then demonstrated that people whose languages do not make this distinction nevertheless describe their experiences of envy in ways consistent with the Dutch distinction between benijden and afgunst. Latent class analysis was applied to ratings of actual experiences of envy in the United States and of envidia in Spain to demonstrate that similar distinctions could be made even in cultures where the language did not supply separate labels.

From the perspective of the person who is the target of envy, it should make a big difference whether the envy is of a malicious or benign form. The interpersonal consequences of winning a desirable assignment or being singled out for praise are very different if one’s colleagues wish one harm than if they wish to become one’s friend! The remainder of this chapter will review research on the effects of envy on the target, with an emphasis on envy in organizations. This survey will show that that there is evidence for both enjoyment and discomfort at being the target of envy. In some cases it will be clear that the type of envy being expressed helps determine the relative balance between the desirability and threat that are presented. But in many cases researchers have not clearly specified whether benign or malignant envy is being studied, and it is worth noting that this ambiguity does not necessarily decrease the value of the research – it is not necessarily clear to the target of envy which form of envy is occurring. It is true that in recent years the existence of two or more forms of envy has been increasingly accepted by researchers, and that things will be learned by making this distinction in future research. Nevertheless, the target of envy is not always in a position to know whether their superiority will elicit benign or malicious envy. Sometimes envy is anticipated, not observed. Sometimes the expression of envy will not disambiguate which form is occurring. Sometimes there are multiple envious individuals, and the presence of benign envy in one cannot rule out the occurrence of malicious envy in others. Finally, nothing about the research demonstrating the existence of two types of envy precludes the possibility that a single envious person cannot vacillate between one form of envy and another. For these reasons, research that examines envy without specifying whether it is benign or malicious may well accurately capture the perspective of a person who is the target of envy.

The Pleasurable Aspects of Being Envied

A large body of research shows that downward social comparisons are pleasurable (Smith, 2000). The question is whether that pleasure persists when the downward comparison is made toward a person who is envying upward. Evidence suggests that the pleasure can remain, that it may even be reinforced by the addition of envy, but that it often is reduced by envy. The effect of envy on the pleasure of downward comparisons depends on many variables: circumstances, psychological and cultural characteristics of the target of envy, the relationship between the envier and the target, and the way that envy is expressed.

In one study, European-American university students in the United States and Spanish university students in Spain were asked to read vignettes describing common envy scenarios written from the point of view of the person being envied (Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2010). One vignette involved winning a prestigious internship, while the other involved living a fulfilling, friendship-filled life at a prestigious university; in both vignettes there was another character who desired the advantage and at the end of the vignette watched the envied person enjoying it. Neither vignette used the word “envy” or described the thoughts and feelings of either character; instead, participants in the study were asked to imagine the situation vividly and then report the thoughts and feelings that each character would probably have and the coping strategies they would be likely to employ.

The results showed that the targets of envy would be expected to experience an element of pleasure. Both vignettes were evaluated as producing substantial levels of pride and self-confidence in the enviable person, as well as moderate levels of feeling good due to having something that someone else desires.

This study explored some of the variables that influence the pleasantness of being envied. Culture is one. In the vignette study just described, the American respondents, when compared to respondents in Spain, expected the target of envy to feel pleasant responses more intensely: more pride, more self-confidence, and more self-affirmation from having something that someone else covets. Intriguingly, however, the Americans also expected the target of envy to feel negative emotions more strongly: they expected the target of envy to feel more guilt and to worry more about being disliked. In short, the Americans expected the experience of being the target of envy to be more intensely ambivalent than did the Spaniards.

This cultural difference makes sense in light of other beliefs reported in this study. Americans anticipated more negative responses from the envious person than the Spaniards did; on average, the Americans expected the envious person to direct more anger and ill will toward them, as well as to feel more inferior. The Spaniards, in contrast, had greater expectation than the Americans that the envious person would feel happy for them. One interpretation of these findings is that one might characterize the Spaniards as expecting more benign envy and the Americans as expecting more malicious envy. In response to an item that asked how much envy the inferior person would feel, the average of the American ratings was much higher than that of the Spaniards. It is noteworthy that American participants reported being more prone to envy than did Spaniards on a measure of trait envy. It is plausible that people gauge the likelihood of another person’s becoming envious by projecting their own tendencies onto them; regression analyses of the American data showed that dispositional envy predicted fear of envy from others (Smith, Parrott, Diener, Hoyle, & Kim, 1999). Americans may therefore anticipate more envy from others than do Spaniards. (Note that the English word envy and the Spanish word envidia both tend to have malicious connotations, so these results are unlikely to result from differences in the meanings of the words; see Rodriquez Mosquera et al., 2010.)

These cultural differences therefore suggest that the pleasantness of being envied is related to expectations of how the envious person will react, whether with benign happiness, or with inferiority, anger, and ill will. They also suggest that the same factors that produce pleasantness also tend to arouse unpleasantness. But why do these cultures generate these different expectations?

Two cultural values appeared to underlie these cultural differences (Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2010). One, vertical individualism, places value on people who stand out as being superior to others, which is typically demonstrated with the outcome of individual competition. People who score high on vertical individualism believe that competition is inevitable and place high value on surpassing others. The other cultural value, horizontal collectivism, emphasizes the similarities between people and values interdependence, sociability, and common goals. People who strongly endorse horizontal collectivism value cooperation and care about the well-being of their co-workers (see Triandis & Gelfand, 1998). These cultural values appear to play some role in explaining some significant differences between the Spaniards and the Americans. The Spaniards, on average, scored higher on horizontal collectivism and lower on vertical individualism than did the Americans. Thus, the Spaniards had a greater orientation toward cooperation and connectedness than did the Americans, so even while they expected the envious person to show less ill will and more happiness for their success, they also felt less pleasure in outdistancing their fellow student; regression analyses of the Spanish data showed that the degree of horizontal collectivism predicted the expectation that a fellow student would feel happy for them for having a superior situation. On the other hand, the Americans’ greater orientation toward competition and individual achievement made their outperformance of another student more satisfying; regression analyses of the American data showed that out of several plausible predictor variables, vertical individualism was the strongest predictor of the tendency to gain pleasure from having something that another person desires.

These findings are congruent with a number of other recent findings. One study used Mechanical Turk to ask a large sample of online respondents if they could remember being the target of another person’s envy (Henniger & Harris, 2013). The 59% who were able to do so were then asked to supply ratings of how the envious person responded and how they reacted. The one positive response to being envied that the researchers measured was self-enhancement. Self-enhancement tended to be greater if the envious person expressed admiration, motivation, and ingratiation – a combination that sounds a lot like benign envy. More malicious expressions of envy (such as hostility, avoidance, and ill will) did not significantly decrease self-enhancement (although the trends were in that direction), but they did decrease positive responses towards the envious person and increase avoidance.

In another study, American undergraduates were asked how much they would like to have their academic performance recognized if they were to receive the highest grade in the class (Exline, Single, Lobel, & Geyer, 2004, Study 2). The students’ feelings about public recognition of their achievement were assessed by asking how much they would like each of three forms of recognition: one in which their instructor acknowledged their performance in some unspecified way, one in which the instructor announced their name to the class as the person who got the highest score, and one in which the instructor not only announced their name but also asked the student to raise his or her hand in class to be identified to the other students. Overall, the students expressed mild interest in being recognized by the instructor, but significantly less interest in having their names announced, and even less interest – to the point of disliking the idea – in being asked to raise their hands. A questionnaire then assessed how the students thought their classmates would react if the instructor drew attention to the top student. Answers to those questions demonstrated that students would enjoy recognition to the extent that they anticipated that their classmates would have positive reactions, such as being inspired by their performance and being happy for and impressed by the top student. Thus, the anticipated reactions of those in a position to make upwards social comparisons predicted students’ aversion to the situation.

This study of public recognition included some measures of individual differences that yielded findings congruent with those of vertical individualism and horizontal collectivism used by Rodriguez Mosquera et al. (2010). Exline et al. (2004, Study 2) measured individual differences in competitiveness and found that they predicted a greater desire for being recognized publicly by the instructor, yet also predicted a greater expectation that classmates would react negatively. The constructs of competitiveness and of vertical individualism are notably similar, so it is remarkable that the pattern Exline et al. found with competitiveness is similar to the pattern that Rodriguez Mosquera et al. found with the more vertically individualistic American students, who enjoyed being envied more than Spanish students did, yet also expected more ill will. In both studies, being competitive makes winning more pleasant even while it causes greater expectations that losers will be unhappy and hostile. Additionally, Exline et al. measured individual differences in narcissism and found that it also predicted a greater desire for public recognition. In fact, the association was even stronger – higher levels of narcissism were strongly associated with greater enjoyment of public recognition. Unlike competitiveness, however, narcissism was not associated with any sort of expectations regarding positive or negative responses from fellow classmates. Rather, narcissism was associated with not caring about whether fellow classmates had negative reactions (such as feeling inferior, hostile, or rejecting). In this respect they were the opposite of the horizontal collectivists studied by Rodriguez Mosquera et al. But these two studies reinforce each other in that both show that caring or not caring about others affects the pleasantness of being the target of an upward social comparison.

In another recent study, American college students kept daily records of times when they thought someone else compared him-or herself unfavorably to the participant (Koch & Metcalfe, 2011, Study 1). Most of the events that were reported involved comparisons made by friends or classmates. For each event, the students rated their own positive and negative affect as well as the degree to which they were concerned about the other person’s feelings. The researchers found that ratings of concern about the other person were associated with higher levels of negative affect and with lower levels of positive affect. So, being the target of an upward social comparison, which may involve envy but need not, tended to feel pleasant if there were not many concerns about the person making the comparison. In a subsequent study, these researchers found that if concern about the other were statistically controlled, signs that the outperformed person was unhappy were actually associated with greater enjoyment.

In sum, being envied can be, in part, a pleasant experience, but numerous factors affect its pleasantness. The type of envy that is expressed is one potent influence – it is more pleasant to be the target of benign envy than of malicious envy, although even malicious envy can be enjoyed. Competitiveness tends to increase the pleasantness of outperforming, and it can derive from a range of factors. Cultures can promote the valuation of competitiveness, as suggested by cultural research in vertical individualism (Triandis & Gelfand, 1998). Individuals within a culture vary with respect to their competitiveness. Some relationships are more competitive than others, and some situations set norms of competitiveness. All of these will tend to increase the pleasantness of being envied, but at the same time they will tend to increase the fear of being envied. Valuing cooperation and interdependence will accentuate the problems of being envied while reducing the intrinsic value of outperformance. In the next section, these negative sides of being envied will be examined.

The Unpleasantness of Being Envied

To the extent that one cares about an envious person, being responsible for their envy can produce an assortment of negative social emotions. The classic statement of these factors is the theory of sensitivity about being the target of a threatening upward comparison that was described in the introduction to this chapter; it provides a good survey of these unpleasant aspects of being envied (Exline & Lobel, 1999). The suffering of a person one cares about can give rise to empathic pain and sympathy. Feeling responsible for another person’s unhappiness can give rise to guilt.

In addition to unhappy concerns focused on the envious person, another set of unhappy responses to being envied involves concerns about one’s own welfare. Exline and Lobel (1999) outlined many of these reactions. The envied person may feel frustrated or overwhelmed by an inability to help the envious person, and he or she may come to feel unkind or less likable and thereby lose some of the self-esteem that downward comparisons typically cause. The envied person may fear that their interpersonal relationships will be disrupted and fear that envious hostility will lead to lost resources or retaliation.

The ill will that envy can generate becomes a direct threat to the envied person, who now stands to lose valuable cooperation and sympathy. Should assistance be needed, the envied person may find it lacking; and should misfortune arise, the envied person may find that others react not with sympathy, but with schadenfreude (Smith, 2013).

Situational factors can increase these malicious forms of envy. In the survey of Mechanical Turk respondents, hostility was found to be increased by unfairness, by the impossibility of obtaining the desired object or outcome, by the situation having zero-sum characteristics, and by the envious person’s having strong desire for the object (Henniger & Harris, 2013). In a survey of first-level supervisors in the workplace, Vecchio (2005) found that resentment was increased if the workplace was structured so that one person’s gains implied that others must be denied any such rewards.

Perceived unfairness has been shown to lead to a variety of hostile actions that can often be shown to be motivated by envy. In research using the Prisoner’s Dilemma game, American undergraduate students playing a series of 10 rounds against a pre-programmed opponent became less cooperative when they received lower payoffs than their opponent, even though that opponent was playing tit-for-tat; this drop in cooperation was especially sharp for participants high in dispositional envy (Parks, Rumble, & Posey, 2009). A follow-up study showed that cooperation did not decrease if a justification were provided for why the other player earned the higher payoff, or if the experimenter offered to compensate for the lower payoff at a later point in time (Parks et al., 2009). In another controlled laboratory experiment, pairs of German adults first played a lottery in which one member of the pair received a generous cash prize, which led the loser to report a moderate level of envy toward the winner. Subsequently, nearly one-third of the losers made gaming choices that caused themselves to make less money purely for the spiteful purpose of forcing the winner to make less money (Wobker, 2014).

In a laboratory experiment, half of the participants (Canadian undergraduates) were led to believe that other participants were mistakenly paid $20 for participation, but they would only be paid the correct amount, $2; the other half were led to believe that all were paid fairly (Wilkin & Connelly, 2015). All participants were then given an opportunity commit theft by asking them to take their pay from an envelope containing a larger amount of cash. Theft was more common in the underpaid condition (32%) than in the fairly paid condition (21%). Measures of discrete emotions revealed that the underpaid participants felt more envy, anger, and disappointment than did those who were fairly paid, but that only the participants who felt envy were more likely to engage in theft.

Thus, people who are the targets of envy are not being unreasonable when thinking that their outperformance may have a cost of lost cooperation and spite. Research outside the laboratory has found that the hostile components of envy have demonstrable consequences in the real-world organizational settings.

For example, Kim and Glomb (2014, Study 2) examined the effects of envy in 67 work groups drawn from three organizations in South Korea. They obtained evaluations of the task performance of each member of the work group, then assessed how much each worker envied a member of his or her work-group. They obtained ratings of how much each worker had been “victimized,” which was defined as being the object of various aggressive actions such as being cursed at or being called by an offensive slur. Finally, each worker’s degree of identification with his or her work-group was assessed. It turned out that task performance was positively correlated with victimization – high performers experienced more victimization. Furthermore, fellow group members’ envy was positively related to task performance and found to partially mediate the relationship between performance and victimization. Work-group identification moderated this relation; high work-group identification weakened the relations between task performance, envy, and victimization.

Another study, of Americans working at a Midwestern university, also found that high performers were more likely to be the target of aggressive acts such as making the high performer look bad, saying bad things about the high performer, or telling a lie in order to get the high performer in trouble. This study did not specifically measure envy, however (Kim & Glomb, 2014, Study 1).

In organizations, envied individuals may be subjected to various forms of aggression, including efforts to hurt their reputations, interfere with their work performance, withhold necessary information, and build opposing coalitions. Cohen-Charash and Mueller (2007) found that envy predicts such counterproductive work behavior only when there is perceived unfairness. If conditions seem fair, envy is not significantly related to aggression in the workplace. In a more recent study of social undermining in the workplace, the relationship between envy and hostile workplace actions was confirmed, but found to be mediated by relationship conflict (Eissa & Wyland, 2016). That is, envy was related to relationship conflict, which in turn was related to hostile undermining of envied employees.

Envious hostility can be expressed in other ways than active backstabbing and insulting. A less active expression of envious hostility is schadenfreude, an expression of pleasure at a misfortune that generally is not brought about by the envious person but rather relies on external circumstances to cause the other’s misfortune (Smith, 2013). Schadenfreude’s passivity does not imply that it presents no threat to the envied person, because it represents a significant loss of sympathy and good will. When faced with challenges and setbacks, the envied person will find amusement where there might have been support. One example of schadenfreude that has been studied in the workplace occurs when co-workers witness an employee being mistreated by a supervisor (Leon & Halbesleben, 2015). Observing abusive supervision typically causes witnesses to become angry at the supervisor; in fact, it is usually so stressful that it can lead to distress and turnover in organizations. When a supervisor abuses an employee who is envied, however, a different dynamic takes place, especially when other exacerbating factors are in place (e.g., the advantage seems unfair, or the relationship between the envious person and the target is strained). Under these circumstances, the reaction of envious witnesses may be schadenfreude rather than sympathy or anger on the co-worker’s behalf (Leon & Halbesleben, 2015).

In summary, being the target of envy opens one to an assortment of problems and concerns. Envy creates social challenges and can disrupt social relationships that were based on equality or mutual caretaking. Envy also can reduce cooperation and sympathy and increase hostility, which increase the vulnerability of the target of envy. The resulting negative emotions, ranging from sympathy and guilt to social anxiety and fear, make the experience of being envied quite ambivalent in most circumstances. The target of envy is faced with social difficulties and vulnerabilities that must be coped with.

Coping with Being Target of Envy

An enviable person is often motivated to avoid being envied or to down-regulate others’ envy once it has occurred. The motivations for avoiding envy were reviewed in the previous section: the target of envy often has sympathetic concerns for the envious person and wants to preserve their relationship; in addition, the target of envy often feels threatened by potential hostility from the envier. Theory and research on how enviable persons cope with their situation have focused on these motives for avoidance and down-regulation. Before discussing them, it is worth noting that targets of envy are not always so motivated. The target of envy does not always care about the feelings of the envious person, does not always have or care about a relationship with that person, and does not always fear the consequences of that person’s envy, and when the benefits of being envied seem high and the costs seem low, the target of envy may be motivated to attract envy and to act in ways to intensify it. There is evidence that such up-regulation occurs, although infrequently. In a survey of everyday experiences of being envied, Rodriguez Mosquera et al. (2010) found that a minority of their respondents reported coping with being the target of envy by trying to accentuate it by showing off their advantage or by bragging about it. Only 6% of the Spanish university students and 7% of the European American students reported this pattern, but it did occur. In everyday life there is probably a delicate balance between avoiding envy’s undesirable effects and making sure that people know about one’s status and accomplishments. Still, it is the reduction of envy that predominates and that requires the most investigation.

Foster’s (1972) anthropological analysis of envy argued that societies develop customs and institutions that serve to moderate envy and thereby reduce its destructive effects. Foster described four general approaches. One, concealment, aims to minimize envy by hiding signs of advantage or superiority. Another, denial, involves downplaying the benefits that the superior person enjoys. A third strategy, symbolic sharing, involves providing some compensation to the envious person to make up for their inferiority. Finally, there may be customs in which advantages are redistributed so that they are shared throughout the community and do not remain the sole possession of the superior person; this Foster called true sharing.

All four of Foster’s approaches are evident in Exline and Lobel’s (1999) theory of sensitivity to being the target of upward social comparisons, but they have been examined in few empirical studies. An exception is a pair of experiments reported by Zell and Exline (2010) that examined the effects of two appeasement strategies and found that they had entirely different effects on the outperformed person. Under laboratory conditions, participants (American undergraduates) competed against a confederate in a game that was rigged so that the confederate always won and was awarded a modest prize. The confederate then engaged in one of two appeasement strategies or, in the control condition, did nothing. One type of appeasement was to offer to give half of the prize to the losing participant; this corresponds to Foster’s fourth approach, true sharing of the envied advantage (although these researchers didn’t measure envy or any other reaction prior to appeasement). The other type of appeasement involved making a mildly self-deprecating remark, which corresponds to Foster’s second approach, denying the extent of the superior position. In both experiments the redistribution approach was successful in producing benefits to the superior person, whereas the denial approach was not. After the confederate offered to share the prize, he or she was evaluated more positively by the outperformed participant than in the other two conditions, although at the cost of making the participant feel worse about his or her own underperformance. In contrast, making a self-deprecating comment had no benefits at all; it did not make the superior person seem more likable, nor did it make the inferior person feel better about his or her performance; it merely led participants to perceive the winner’s outperformance as being less due to skill.

Despite the ineffectiveness of the self-deprecating comments employed by Zell and Exline (2010), the efficacy of modesty in diffusing envy is generally supported. For example, there is a large literature demonstrating that bragging makes people less likable (Wosinska, Dabul, Whetstone-Dion, & Cialdini, 1996). Modesty’s effect in reducing envy is also demonstrated by recent studies showing that displays of hubristic pride decrease likability and elicit malicious envy, whereas displays of authentic pride make a person somewhat more likable and elicit benign envy (Lange & Crusius, 2015). Other research suggests that outperformers will act more modestly if confronted with hostile envy (see Yu & Duffy, Chapter 2, this volume).

Evidence of appeasement strategies is found in other studies. For example, in the Prisoner’s Dilemma research described previously, not only did players who received lower payoffs than their opponent become less cooperative, other players who received higher payoffs than their opponent became more cooperative (Parks et al., 2009). This type of appeasement corresponds to Foster’s (1972) third approach, in which some compensation is offered to the envious person.

Other appeasement strategies have been identified by researchers, such as being kind and helpful. In a series of three laboratory experiments, van de Ven, Zeelenberg, and Pieters (2010) led participants to believe that they would receive a cash bonus but that the other participant would not; these participants reported being more worried about being envied that did those in a control condition in which both participants were believed to receive the same cash bonus. When given the opportunity to help out the other participant by giving time-consuming advice or by picking up objects that the other had dropped, participants in the envy condition were more helpful than were those in the control condition, but only if the envy was malicious envy; benign envy did not elicit prosocial behavior. This pattern of results suggests that the motivation for appeasement in this situation was fear of hostility from the envious person.

The association between hostile envy and appeasement strategies was also observed in the cross-cultural experiment that compared American and Spanish responses to being envied (Rodriguez Mosquera et al., 2010). In that experiment, the American participants were not only more likely than the Spaniards to expect ill will and anger but were also more likely than the Spaniards to try to manage the situation by being nice to the envious person. The Spaniards were more likely to expect a more benign form of envy and less likely to appease the envious person with compliments or a nice meal.

In the context of organizations, the danger of envy is that it may hurt group performance more than it helps. A recent study of envy in business settings in a variety of Norwegian organizations provided evidence that envy was negatively related to group performance (Thompson, Glasø, & Martinsen, 2015). Envy was negatively correlated with job satisfaction, group cohesion, group performance, and with providing assistance and cooperation to others in the organization. Envy was found to damage relationships within work-groups and to direct energy away from group activities. Organizations may therefore wish to avoid structural factors and organizational practices that promote envy. For example, zero-sum reward systems generate more negative emotion by increasing competition, distrust, and hostility (Vecchio, 2005). Unequal treatment of workers promotes envy (Wilkin & Connelly, 2015). Organizations may also wish to adopt practices that minimize envy, such as by promoting work-group identification (Kim & Glomb, 2014) and other envy-reducing management strategies detailed in many chapters in this volume.

- W. Gerrod Parrott is in the Department of Psychology, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

'Envy at Work and in Organizations' is edited by Richard H. Smith, Ugo Merlone and Michelle K. Duffy. This extract is by kind permission of Oxford University Press. For your chance to win a copy of the book, see our Twitter feed.


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