Understanding Envy Part 2: Facing Professional Envy

Talking about Self-Awareness and Anxiety (with Hello Monday’s Jessi Hempel)

MORA AARONS-MELE: I’m Morra Aarons-Mele, and this is The Anxious Achiever. We look at stories from business leaders, who’ve dealt with anxiety, depression, or other mental health challenges, how they fell down, how they pick themselves up and how they hope workplaces can change.

Today’s guest reminds us that envy is one of the seven deadly sins. She calls envy an ugly emotion, but her research also shows just how common an emotion it is in our workplaces. Beyond the workplace, envy is fundamental. Babies feel envy, dogs feel envy. Just think back to your youth. I bet you can still picture a childhood rival who stirred envious feelings. When I was five years old, I stole Barbie accessories from a friend’s house at a playdate. I put them in my pants leg. So deeply, did I covet her toys. And so envious was I of her bounty in life. In this episode, part two of our mini-series on envy, we explore the deep, psychological and familiar roots of envy, and how it can cause distraction and rumination to bloom. Envy can cause us to lose focus and to fixate on another person instead of on ourselves and our work.

Envy can drive bad decisions, like my five-year-old larcenist self. And so we’ll also talk about how to shift feelings of envying other people, to feeling joy at others’ accomplishments. Negotiating your relationship with envious feelings is a boundary-setting exercise. It’s one of setting your own boundaries. And that can be a simple or a complex process. And so we’ll talk about how to draw good boundaries to limit your envious feelings. Because ultimately when you feel less envy, you become more successful yourself. My guest, Tanya Menon, is Professor of Management and Human Resources at the Fisher College of Business, Ohio State University. She studies how people think about relationships and how this affects the way they make decisions, collaborate and lead at work.

I’m curious what made you want to study envy?

TANYA MENON: When I started this research, envy wasn’t a topic I would have ever picked to study. It’s in fact, a topic that many psychologists stay far away from. It’s fascinating as a topic, but it’s one of the seven deadly sins. It’s something that… people were studying power, people are studying a lot of other kinds of psychological ideas. But envy had its own special, kind of, just pain and drama associated with it. In my research, it actually started my dissertation research, and I was really interested in learning how people in organizations evaluate new ideas, how they create new ideas. I was doing research with Jeffrey Pfeifer at Stanford, and we were studying people in organizations. And we’d see people actually devalue the ideas of their colleagues. And so when we were observing this, these were ideas that were good ideas. In fact, even ideas that they would grudgingly admit were good ideas, and then they’d find ways to put them down.

And so that’s kind of what got me interested in this particular topic. But then when I started thinking about it a little bit deeper, I was like, “This is a topic that has actually kind of been with me at a personal level.” Because I’m an older sister. And if anybody’s an older sibling, one of the things that, and I don’t know, maybe it was just in my family. But in a lot of families, what you’ll see is people say, “Well, you’re jealous of your sister.” It’s envy that’s there. And so I was thinking about it. I said, “Maybe this topic was something that I was meant to study.” Just because I’d heard about it and had it put on me even as a little kid.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Oh my God. That’s really funny because I’m an older sister as well. I come out of that dynamic of always competing. And also, I always say that I’m obsessed with envy because I went to a really intense all-girls school, for high school, where envy was sort of the currency. It’s plagued me.

TANYA MENON: It’s interesting. I think it’s a topic that’s so fascinating because it’s a family dynamic. Even before we get into the workplace, your mom and dad is the manager, and you can see all different kinds of behaviors in children when they’re little. And as a parent, we give people, the kids, a way to attribute to it. And my mom tells the story of when my little sister came back and I was 16 months old. Apparently I turned to another side. And I don’t know what I was doing. Maybe I had an itch on that side or something, but she was like that kind of was in her mind as something that proved that I had envy towards my sister.

MORA AARONS-MELE: But you say envy is an ugly emotion. If it’s so ugly, why do we experience it?

TANYA MENON: This is up for debate. There’s a lot of research in psychology, and philosophy, and other areas where some people say, you know what, there’s this thing called benign envy where you and I might… I might admire all of your achievements. And it drives me to emulate whatever it is that you’re doing. It’s something that seems to me a whole lot more like admiration. But they differentiate between that and malicious envy. Malicious envy is really where you dislike and wish that the other person didn’t have whatever it is that they have.

There are ways that people think about it. Which is that Schoeck, who’s a German researcher, anthropologists. He says, “The envious man thinks if a neighbor breaks his leg, he will be able to walk better himself.” And it’s this element of resentment that another person has what they have. And I think that’s why people feel envy is something irredeemable. And so this idea that the other person shouldn’t have it, it’s not just that, “You know what, they have it. I recognize that. I admired them working towards it.” It’s, “They have it and it upsets me that they have it.”

MORA AARONS-MELE: When you were studying all those workers who downplayed and diminished their colleagues’ ideas, do you believe it was those people’s desire to see bad things happen to their colleagues or bad things happen to their colleague’s ideas? Maybe the new business line would fail and they would get fired?

TANYA MENON: That’s a really great question. I don’t think that’s what they were hoping for. I think it came from fear. And so I think what makes this emotion so interesting is it comes from so many different places. There are many different types of it. And I think what they felt was fear. They felt that if these others were recognized for new ideas, what would happen to their ideas? What would happen to their own position? And so I think one of the things that Martha Nussbaum talks about in her book, The Monarchy of Fear, is that you have this kind of threat, this fear, and it can morph into other kinds of emotions. It could become an envy, it could become anger, it could become lots of other ways of responding.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Well, right. Because you also say that emotions are causally interconnected, and one emotion tends to lead to another. My question is, so what’s the relevance then between envy and anxiety? Because we know that fear and anxiety are very related.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. They are connected. And so researchers have found that… so Robert Bringle, who’s at Indiana University. He says that people who are more anxious and more worried experience jealousy in romantic relationships. Okay. And so, there’s another conversation there about jealousy and envy. But when we talk about envy, we have talked about it in the context of threat. And people who are feeling anxious about their place in the world, their own abilities, that’s where you’re going to see a lot more envy dynamics as well. If people are secure, that’s not going to manifest as much.

MORA AARONS-MELE: When you’re in a place of fear and anxiety, it’s harder to focus and it’s definitely harder to stay focused on doing your own good job. I think that one of the things that’s very hard is when you’re in a place of fear and anxiety, to get your own work done and not fixate on what someone else is doing, and why they’re better, and why they’re going to get all the goodies and you’re going to not get any of the goodies. Is that consistent with what you found in your research?

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I like how you talk about kind of where your attention is directed. I think that is also one of the reasons why I am not someone who really sees envy as something that is even kind of this more benign element, as something that is necessarily helpful to motivating your own achievement. It’s hard to do that when you have envy, when you have resentment, when you’re focused on what that other person is. And so this is this idea that when we’re so focused on that other person, how can we redirect and focus on ourselves and all of the other things that we have to do?

And so in a lot of the work on dealing with toxic people, they talk about it as you have to set boundaries. We have to prevent that toxic person from kind of entering our boundary. And the way that I look at envy sometimes is it is a boundary-setting exercise, but it’s our own boundaries. It’s our own eyes that are looking at other people, that are fixating on other people, that are looking at other people’s standards. And we have to really set that boundary around ourselves so that we can work. So we can measure ourselves against our own standards, rather than some kind of standard that we imagine other people are living up to.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Right. Or that other people literally set for us by saying… Here’s the thing that’s really hard about envy. I think for many of us in the modern competitive workplace is that I do think there’s a strong mythology that envy sort of gets you ahead. That envy is motivating. That, oh, man, I see my boss driving a Mercedes and I’m going to work hard enough so that one day I have that Mercedes. When you say that I need to set boundaries against my own envy, well, I know that to be true because I know that envy causes me to lose focus and productivity. But I also have been taught that I want things and that’s sort of envy.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I like this idea of this mythology that we are steeped in.


TANYA MENON: Because I think it connects with the social and political systems we’re a part of. And so, Alexis de Tocqueville, he’s this French social scientist who decided to wander around the United States. And this was probably around the time of Andrew Jackson. He was very interested in this place where people were equal. One of the things he said that comes from equality is if theoretically we’re in a system without caste, without monarchy, and nobility, and all of that, anybody can get what anybody else can if they work hard enough. And what de Tocqueville observed is, boy, that creates both envy and shame. So all of these people, if I can get that Mercedes, then I should be doing that. And if I don’t have it, boy, should I feel ashamed of myself. It’s part of this mythology that we’re steeped in.

MORA AARONS-MELE: But that mythology is so profound, the mythology of meritocracy and work that if only I work hard enough. It’s very difficult, I think, to overcome.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I think the hierarchy and caste, as much as we despise all of that, it creates separations between people, and it creates predictability, it creates uncertainty. And what the social scientists were very interested in is that if you and I are equal, okay, that relationship between us can shift. It could change. If I work harder, I can go above you. That’s a fundamental instability that’s there as a result of that. And as we know, it’s that kind of uncertainty, that kind of ambiguity, is psychologically hard on people.

MORA AARONS-MELE: In an HBR piece you wrote in 2010, you wrote that “Envy has sometimes been described as a social microscope.” What did you mean by that?

TANYA MENON: Leigh Thompson and I wrote that article and we’ve done a few papers on envy. This metaphor of a microscope has been used very often to describe the way in which we are so focused on small differences, and particularly small differences with respect to what we have versus others have. It’s this measuring stick. And we are so, so small. If you look at what envy is, an anxiety, there’s the German word for fear. Which is an angst, right? I’m probably saying it wrong. Angst, right? And so the word, anxiety, anguish, anger, all come from that word. And so what that word derives from is narrowing. And I think the danger of envy is that microscope, that it makes us fixated on others and their things, versus ours. And it makes us small, right? We’re focused on the smallest differences rather than seeing ourselves and our connections to others in a larger way. Is this emotion? Is this feeling making you a smaller person or a bigger person?

MORA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. But I also want to say, I think any person would be lying if they said they never have felt it in their life. And certainly we all feel envy. And so I don’t want listeners to feel shame for feeling these feelings, right?

TANYA MENON: Right. And I don’t think we need to shame people for feeling the emotions. And so this is what we’re saying. We have our feelings, which are just things that shouldn’t be judged. Things that we have inside of us. And then there’s how we explain them. That’s the cognitive part. And then how we act on them. How those feelings become engines for our actions. And that’s where really our choices start. You can feel whatever you want to feel, but how are you going to take those into actions that are productive for you, for your organization, for other people around you? And that’s really the question.

MORA AARONS-MELE: And that’s the work.

TANYA MENON: That’s the work.

MORA AARONS-MELE: That’s the work.

TANYA MENON: And it’s so much work.

MORA AARONS-MELE: It’s so much work.

TANYA MENON: It’s so much work.

MORA AARONS-MELE: What would your advice be to someone… I think right now also is a very hard time. It’s a very hard time because there’s inequality that’s rampant and the pandemic has made it worse. And a lot of people may have lost their jobs in a totally unfair way. And there are people who would say that, “You know what, some envy is warranted right now. Because inequality has exploded in ways that are very unfair.” And so what’s your advice to someone who’s maybe looking for a job and is overwhelmed with anxiety and some envy? How can you sort of calm it down enough so that you can stay focused, and again, reclaim that attention and focus that you need maybe to find another job or get back on a path?

TANYA MENON: I think that advice in general, with respect to this particular emotion, one of the most important things is that the comparisons we’re making are biased and based on a lot of false information. In the modern world, you have Facebook, and we are forced to look at people’s really curated images of what foods they’re eating, what vacations they’re having, and what their kids are up to. And there’s not much truth in a lot of those displays. I think what you’re seeing is we have to recognize sometimes there’s unfairness. And I think some people say one of the important parts of envy is that it cues us onto justice, so that when we see something that isn’t fair, that envy is something that’s helpful to us to call that out. But I would also question that particular thing, because if we think it’s not fair, we get angry more at the system than the people that have it.

We’re focused more on “I could do this, I need to fix the system in some sense.” But I think the real thing that we have to do in these kinds of times is to get over the envy in some sense. I love when you feel these kinds of feelings, to surface it, to recognize that you’re having it, to respond with a compliment to the other person, to learn from what they’re doing. What is under my control? What can I do to get over this kind of response? And then also remind yourself of the things that you have, that give you strength, that give you a space to navigate in the world. It’s back to this boundary aspect of envy. We feel envious when somebody’s doing something that we want. We are kind of getting into, they’re in our space. That’s how we feel. And so I think it’s really kind of ensuring that you have that space and reaffirming that space that you have.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Well, can we break that down a little bit into very bite-size pieces about setting boundaries? Because I think that would be helpful for people. You have a coworker and the coworker just got an assignment to write an article in a trade publication. And you feel like you’ve always been a pretty good writer and you’ve done writing for the team in the past. Why did your boss give that plum assignment that has visibility to your coworker? They don’t deserve it. You deserve it. You’re feeling envy. You’re feeling all kinds of feelings that are really getting in the way of your own work. What’s the first step? How do you start to create the awareness, and then the boundaries and then turning this feeling into anything useful, perhaps?

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I think what ends up happening so often to people is because envy is something so reviled, we don’t even experience it as envy. What we would do is we’d say, “That person’s article wasn’t so good. The boss must have favored that person in some way.” The system is corrupt. We do all kinds of things to derogate that achievement, rather than to acknowledge that we’re actually envious. I think this is what makes it so hard for us to learn from envy and turn it into anything productive, because we’re so reluctant to just kind of… nobody’s going to say, “Yeah. She’s a better writer than I am. I got to work harder.” That’s what would be productive. But it’s so psychologically hard for people to do that. And so I think it does really go back to self-awareness, which is to stop and pause, and even write down all of these things. And then even step back, write them down without judgment, that you’re feeling at this particular moment.

And then maybe even about how a third-party might react to what you’re feeling. Because the other thing about envy is we’re really, really good at seeing envy in other people. We’re really good at calling it out and saying, “That person is definitely displaying envy.” We’re good at seeing it in other people. And so really then asking yourself, this is the goal. This is what is important to me. Okay. And so Peter Salovey says, “What is important about envy is it closes in to what we think is important in this world.” Writing that piece is what’s important in this world.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Do I first have to understand that I am feeling envy? Because like you said, it is one of the seven deadly sins. So it’s not something that we even want to admit that we fell.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. It’s often hard to admit that we feel it. I think even labeling it is hard for people. How do we redirect it into actions and behaviors that are going to get us to the goals that we want? How do we start labeling it? I don’t think it’s necessarily labeling it as envy. Envy may be part of what you’re feeling. You may be feeling annoyed. You may be feeling scared. There’s all different kinds of labels we could put on it. And then just kind of thinking about how we can direct to actions, to behaviors, to strategies that are going to allow us to understand what that boss saw in the writing, what the boss wants, what the boss needs. Maybe there’s even collaborations with that other person, a way to learn from that other person. There’s so many different possible behavioral strategies that are there. But when we just kind of simply surface what we feel, we can just dismiss that other person. We can just say, “Geez, they’re really not good. The boss is biased.” And we actually fail to see all of these other options that would allow us to learn.

MORA AARONS-MELE: How do you diagnose for envy on teams? Because it’s a dynamic that I’m pretty sure everyone is nodding their head out of there thinking, “Yeah, this has happened.” Do managers ever come to you and say, “Oh my gosh, my team is at war. What’s going on?” And you diagnose envy?

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I think one of the things that’s really important here is you got to let people compete at the right times. And so, people out doing each other, people competing with each other, there has to be space created for that. And at the same time, there also has to be space for allowing people to come together again. Leigh Thompson and I, we’ve talked about this whole process of competing, and coming together, and doing it in a way that respects the rules of a system. And so the thing like what you described is this kind of below the surface, kind of passive aggressive processes that are really violating, and they’re going under the surface rather than being part of the organizational behavior that we recognize–

MORA AARONS-MELE: Is that the difference between envy and competition? Or just talk about that a little bit.

TANYA MENON: Competition is part of envy. I’m comparing myself to you. I want to win. But that envy is really around this resentment that we have when we actually recognize that another person is better than us. As some people say that envy is a past tense. We’ve already recognized that they’re above us. And competition is… I’m fighting to win. It’s a process of me and you trying to outdo each other. And I might not necessarily despise you for winning. But so one of the things that Lee and I have talked about in our work is that we need to create these boundaries that allow people to compete and come together. And so we use the metaphor of sports.

And so if, for example, using tennis, as an example. You and I could play tennis and we compete together. And then afterwards we laugh. We have a good time together. We’ve competed. One of us has done better than the other, but then we’re friends again. You see this in a lot of sports. One of the things that we’ve observed about that is because there are really clear lines, there’s in, there’s out, there’s lines, and rules and ways that we should be working together. And so I think having that clarity in terms of where we can compete. And then when we’re off the field, we don’t do those kinds of behaviors.

MORA AARONS-MELE: I love the idea of the tennis lines though, because it is so clear. The rules are clear of winning and losing, but one of the things I’m thinking about, because again, this show is about anxiety and mental health challenges. Is that when you are anxious or when you’re depressed, I think for that matter too, boundaries are less easy. Lines become fuzzy. And the rules don’t feel relevant. I’m curious if you’ve worked with people who are depressed or who are anxious, if you see them feeling more envy or having a more difficult time managing those boundaries?

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I think the characteristic, and I think this is where your question may be heading, is around rumination.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Yeah. The stew.

TANYA MENON: It goes back to that microscope. It goes back to fixating and kind of not getting off of the subject. And so what I was just talking about with having these clear lines, and boundaries, and different ways of acting, the person who is ruminating, they’re stuck, they’re fixated and they’re escalating. They’re kind of looking at these small differences and they’re getting more and more wound up and emotional about it. And so–

MORA AARONS-MELE: They haven’t left the court. They’re still on the court rehashing that fault, that foul, that failed serve. Sorry, don’t mean to belabor the metaphor.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. It’s how to get the person to see new options, to see their feelings in different ways, to redirect. Sometimes maybe it’s not even a resolvable situation. And so maybe that person is just so good. And of course we don’t know how hard they worked. We only see their outcomes. We are not really aware of all of the work they’ve done as well to get there. Maybe you’ll never get there. And as painful as that message is, then maybe it’s something to be avoided so that you don’t sit there, stew and ruminate. And it is this mental discipline of saying that my mind is going to this place where it’s really, really not productive for me to be.

There is a different space that I need to construct for myself, a different conversation that I should be having in my own head. It doesn’t involve that person. It may not even involve that situation. Maybe I’m not going to get that particular article that I really wanted and that my coworker got instead. And so it’s really forcing yourself to stop taking yourself to those places that you’re stuck in.

MORA AARONS-MELE: Well, it’s so funny. I was just thinking of an example, and you can tell me if this is right or not. But I’m a member of a professional community that’s online, of very, very accomplished women. I’ve noticed that when I’m feeling fragile, I can’t read it, because the envy, and the guilt, and all these feelings and the shame gets so intense just by seeing someone’s innocuous email: “My Ted Talk came out today. Can you go watch it?” That will just send me into… I’ll lose the day. And so I’ll turn off the list for a day or two. Because I’ve learned that it will send me into a bad place. And I just avoid it.

TANYA MENON: Yeah. I think when we look at Facebook, when we look at a lot of the news, they’re geared to getting you to react emotionally. If you look at a lot of that content, and you’re going up and down, and you’re outraged, and feeling a whole range of emotions, including envy, sadness, anger, the whole range of it. And really that question is then, again, why are we getting moved around in these ways externally? We’re being led on a leash, instead of having control of our own internal compass. I think it’s one of the really difficult parts of what we face in the modern world. It’s not just the workplace, it’s the people who have these personal broadcast networks on Facebook or wherever. I do think practicing some kind of limit on those, or even looking at them through a different lens saying, “This is not reality. This is someone’s version of reality for the world.”


TANYA MENON: Those are really important ways of changing the lenses that we have on all of these comparisons that we’re making.

MORA AARONS-MELE: So you give people permission to turn off some external triggers if they really need to focus and get work done?

TANYA MENON: Yeah. Part of what envy is, is you’re looking. And so in anthropology, they talk about the evil eye. It’s that eye that kind of looks at others in a malevolent way and a covetous way. If that’s what people are feeling when they’re looking at Facebook and other things, we have to ask ourselves, is this making me a bigger person? Is this making me a smaller person? What is it causing inside me psychologically? There’s research, I think, and I think it’s some of the most important research for research on envy. Kristin Neff’s work on self-compassion. Which is we have to be compassionate to ourselves. Sitting there exposing ourselves to all these people doing better, or better by whatever standard that happens to be active in our minds.

We need to really be compassionate to ourselves, to where we are, and stop that process if it’s too psychologically painful. That idea of you’re exposing yourself to pain. Researchers in Japan have actually found that when people are experiencing envy, the pain centers in their brain go off. And so this is Tamagawa’s research. It’s brain pain. And so you’re exposing yourself to that pain.

MORA AARONS-MELE: That’s it for today’s show. Thanks to my producer, Mary Dooe. And thanks to Liz Sanchez for her help producing. Thanks to the team at HBR and the studio team who make the audio happen. I’m grateful to our guests for sharing their experiences and their truths for you, our listeners, and for our advertisers. Please send me feedback. You can email anxiousachiever@gmail.com or tweet me @morraam. And if you love the show, tell your friends or subscribe and leave a review.

From HBR Presents, this is Morra Aarons-Mele.

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