Non-stop gossiping. Constant complaints. Malicious rumors spreading like wildfire. These are just a few signs that envy has taken root in your workplace.
Over my 16 years as a CEO, dozens of colleagues have approached me in a panic after witnessing this behavior. The peaceful, harmonious environment they longed felt unattainable. “I don’t get it,” they’ll shake their heads in disbelief. What happened?
Workplace envy, when left unmitigated, can quickly turn things toxic and end up spoiling your company culture. According to Harvard professor and columnist Arthur Brooks, envy is a happiness killer. “Unfortunately, it is also completely natural, and no one escapes it entirely,” he writes. “But if you understand it better, you can stop fueling it and step back from that cliff’s edge.”
I’m no stranger to these feelings. It’s a human response to insecurity. But I’ve learned that building and modeling self-awareness in ourselves and among our teams can prevent envy from derailing an organization’s morale.
People rarely admit to being envious or jealous of others—at least to the target of their gaze. Co-workers are more likely to experience snarky attitudes, disdainful glances, or smug replies during a meeting. Many of these behaviors can be categorized as passive-aggressive, while others are noticeable, given obvious complaints or finger-pointing.
To counteract, we must notice these patterns of behavior before they escalate. Envy thrives on silence, and like long-held grudges, it festers.
By initiating open discussions with their teams, leaders can guide employees to differentiate between benign and malicious envy. The former can create healthy competition and motivation, like greater job engagement, whereas the latter destroys interpersonal relationships by slandering someone’s good name, for example. At Jotform, we practice freudenfreude, which describes finding pleasure in someone else’s good fortune. One way we incorporate this in our company is by holding weekly demo days where teams showcase the progress of the projects they’ve been working on. Everyone takes these demo days as an opportunity to give positive feedback and support to their colleagues. In doing so, we encourage a sense of camaraderie to promote healthy connections with colleagues.
Playing favorites can breed distrust. Showing preferences or giving certain workers more privileges than others is one of the primary breeding grounds for malicious envy. I’ve found spending quality time one-on-one with my employees helps dispel this. We create better rapport with our team members and confirm their contributions are equally appreciated.
I have lunch with a different employee each day—remote or in person. We catch up on our lives with two of my favorite questions: what’s something you’re especially excited about these days, and what did you love most from your last trip? Learning who they are as a person offers a bonding experience that can’t be replicated when you’re simply talking about deliverables. It also gives you insight into their passions and interests outside of the office.
Envy, after all, is the mind trap that others’ lives are more plentiful than our own. When a co-worker receives a promotion or special recognition, it can be easy to spiral into comparison and start commenting on whether that person was deserving of their achievement. Empathy is the best way to counteract this frequent situation in the workplace.
Researchers have found that focusing on people’s ups and downs diminishes envy. Imagining the bad alongside the good circumstances of others can have a profound effect on our own morale. For example, imagining that others have wonderful lives makes us overlook the everyday annoyances we all go through.
Leaders can make empathy a focal point in their organizations by facilitating workshops or group discussions to increase self-awareness. Some of the topics companies can explore include:
- How empathetic listening and being more present during conversations can increase our understanding of others’ needs
- How we can leverage differences—whether in cultures, backgrounds, or even departments
- How we can deepen connections by imagining ourselves in someone else’s situation (experiencing their emotions and ideas)
To set the pace for their employees, leaders must address their own anxiety and unhappiness first. As Brooks notes, leaders should stop trying to be envied and place greater value on teamwork and a harmonious culture.
Please don’t try to project an image of perfection. When we never discuss our flaws, we can’t expect our employees to. I grappled with this a lot as a young entrepreneur, starting my first company in 2006. I confused confidence with success and tried to appear like I had everything together at all times. Where’d that get me? Tired, with a strong reputation of an inflated ego. Now, I know better.
To build this level of self-awareness, we should practice continuous self-reflection. Looking at both the good and the bad. This sense of humanism—mistakes and all— makes people feel more connected and at ease to let go of their own need for perfectionism.
Aytekin Tank is the founder and CEO of Jotform and the author of Automate Your Busywork. A developer by trade but a storyteller by heart, he writes about his journey as an entrepreneur and shares advice for other startups.