Managing Envy in the Workplace

Adopted from the Latin term “invidēre,” the word “envy” means to look at another with disapproval or suspicion.[1] And it is a feeling we are all familiar with.

Research has shown that older children and adults are envious when they feel inferior to others in areas of greater importance to themselves.[2] The feeling gets stronger when the targets of comparison have similar attributes and characteristics as themselves.[3] In other words, we are more likely to feel envious when people who are like us accomplished something we didn’t. More interestingly, when we are feeling envious, the area of our brains activated is the same one that activates when we feel pain.[4]

Indeed, envy is painful. Sometimes, it too painful to bear that people react in an automatic manner without being fully aware of their feelings (e.g., “I don’t like this person, but I can clarify why…”), resulting in rifts in relationships.[5]

Although rarely talked about, envy widely exists in the workplace. With limited resources the organization can allocate and limited attention a leader can give to each team member, one person’s gain in the workplace can mean less resources for the others.

Researchers have studied the negative outcomes resulting from malicious envy: interpersonal conflicts, social undermining,[6] interpersonal counter-productive behaviors (e.g., “I’m not going to help him with the task even though I am able to!”) and organizational counter-productive behaviors (e.g., “I’m going to make long phone calls to family and friends during work hours!”).[7]

So envy can cause pain to organizational outcomes as well.

Origins of envy vary. Despite dispositional reasons for envy (some are born with personalities more prone to feeling envious), the prevalence of envy can also be the result of poor leadership and organizational practices.

For example, narcissistic leaders may deliberately stir up the envy in employees in order to hold control over people and resources (e.g., “I’m the most powerful person in the office.”)[8] or when a leader lacks essential communication and decision-making skills, employees may feel that important decisions are made unfairly, which can result in envious feelings.

Furthermore, when the organizational processes are not transparent or perceived as just (e.g, “I don’t understand how he got the promotion, it’s so unfair!”) and there is little interpersonal trust within a moderate size team (e.g., “I bet she got to lead this project because she is the boss’ friend.”), malicious envy can happen more frequently and do more damage to the people and the team.

Therefore, to manage envy in the workplace, organizations should focus on improving their leaders’ leadership competencies and ensuring transparency and fairness of organizational procedures.  Companies should also create official channels for employees to voice their opinions (click here to read more on the importance of giving employees a voice) and have open conversations to promote transparency and senses of fairness. 

More importantly, benign envy in the form of admiration and emulation can promote healthy competitions within the organization. Such healthy competition can encourage employees to close the gap between themselves and their peers by improving their abilities and continuing to excel at their work.[9]

Tell us about your grapples with envy in the comments below!


[1] Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary.


[2] Bers, S.A., & Rodin, J. (1984). Social-comparison jealousy: A developmental and motivation study. Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes, 47, 766-779.


[3] Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison process. Human Relations, 7, 117-140.


[4] Takahashi, H., Kato, M., Matsuura, M., Mobbs, D., Suhara, T., & Okubo, Y. (2009). When your gain is my pain and your pain is my gain: Neural correlates of envy and schadenfreude. Science, 323, 937-939.


[5] Stein, M. (1997). Envy and leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 6, 453-465.


[6] Eissa, G., & Wyland, R. (2016). Keeping up with the Joneses: The role of envy, relationship conflict, and job performance in social undermining. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, 23, 55-65.


[7] Cohen-Charash, Y., & Mueller, J. S. (2007). Does perceived unfairness exacerbate or mitigate interpersonal counterproductive work behaviors related to envy?. Journal of Applied Psychology, 92, 666-680.


[8] Braun, S., Aydin, N., Frey, D., & Peus, C. V. (2015). Leader narcissism predicts followers’ malicious envy and counterproductive work behaviors. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 2015, No. 1, p. 16115). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.


[9] Tai, K., Narayanan, J., & McAllister, D. J. (2012). Envy as pain: Rethinking the nature of envy and its implications for employees and organizations. Academy of Management Review, 37, 107-129.


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March 17, 2022 at 3:00 am

When you feel you re threatened or becoming envious, try to positively affirm yourself. Remind yourself of your strengths and past successes. Positive reinforcement can go a long way towards easing the intensity of potential envy.


Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.