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Jealousy at work: The telltale signs and how to deal with it

You’re in a meeting at work when it’s announced that one of your colleagues has been promoted. They have a new, important title (and you’re guessing a bigger salary too). 

How do you feel? Are you excited for your coworker? Or is there a little voice in your head saying, “Psst! You want that! How dare they get promoted over you!”? Maybe you’re experiencing a little bit of both?

Rest assured that all of those emotions are completely normal—yes, even then envious ones. Jealousy at work is bound to occur in your professional life at some point or another. Here are a few statistics that prove just how common and prevalent it is: 

  • A study from the University of California, San Diego discovered that 79% of women and 74% of men reported feeling envious of someone within the previous year. [1]
  • Jealousy seems to be more common among younger people, with 80% of people younger than 30 saying they had experienced envy within the past year. In contrast, 69% of people aged 50 and older admitted to feeling jealous of someone. [1]
  • It seems that occupational envy peaks near middle-age. Career jealousy rose from 22% among young adults in their 20s to 43% among participants in their 40s. It dropped to 36% among participants who were age 50 and older. [1]
  • A lot of our personal value and fulfillment is wrapped up in our careers, with 51% of Americans saying their jobs give them a sense of identity. That means our careers are ripe with the potential for jealousy. [2]
  • One study found that a person who gets deservingly promoted is envied in a less negative way than a person who gets promoted undeservingly. [3]
Table of contents

What are some signs of jealousy at work?

It’s been estimated that up to 10% of our thoughts involve comparisons in some way. That’s really what’s at the root of jealousy in the workplace: the social comparison theory

The gist of this theory is that we match ourselves up against other people (such as our coworkers) to understand how we’re doing, and our perception of that comparison directly impacts our self-image. So, when your colleague gets promoted, it’s hard not to view their success as your personal failure. 

Jealousy isn’t inherently bad. However, it’s important to recognize when it’s happening in the workplace so that you can handle it appropriately—whether that means managing your own emotions when you realize you’re feeling jealous, successfully working with a colleague who is demonstrating envious behaviors, or managing envy on a team you’re leading.

With that in mind, let’s look at a few signs of jealousy at work: 

  • Attention on flaws and failures: When positive news or another achievement is shared, a jealous person will respond by calling attention to all of the negatives of the situation. For example, they’d mention that a promotion is great, but it also means more pressure and longer work hours.

  • Increased conflict and disagreement: Jealousy threatens our own feelings of self-worth, which tempts us to shoot down others. This can lead to disagreements that are unproductive, simply because people want to argue for the sake of arguing.

  • Avoidance and isolation: It’s tough to be around someone if you feel jealous of them, because it can feel like a constant reminder of your own shortcomings. So, somebody who’s experiencing envy might fail to include someone in on emails, meetings, and social events.

  • Negative nonverbal cues: From crossed arms and a icy tone of voice to crossed arms and blatant eye rolls, there are plenty of body language and nonverbal cues that can indicate someone is feeling unhappy or jealous. 

Have you noticed some of these indicators on your team? With a specific coworker? Or maybe even within yourself? Well, jealousy could be creeping in. Don’t worry—we’ll talk about how to deal with it in a little bit. 

Is jealousy at work a good thing or a bad thing?

A certain amount of jealousy in the workplace is normal. However, not all jealousy is created equal. That’s right—there are actually two different kinds of jealous feelings

  • Benign envy: This type of jealousy inspires us to pursue something similar and ultimately improve ourselves. For example, if a networking acquaintance landed a public speaking opportunity, that might give you the boost you need to put yourself out there for a speaking opportunity of your own. 
  • Malicious envy: As the name implies, this type of jealousy isn’t as productive. Instead, we have a negative view of the person we’re envious of, might act unreasonably toward them, and even experience pleasure when they experience something negative. 

This distinction is important, because understanding whether career jealousy is a good thing or a bad thing isn’t necessarily black and white.

In general, benign envy can actually be a positive thing at work. Seeing somebody else achieve a goal can inspire us to take our own steps forward. Studies show that benign envy is related to motivation. So, if you can figure out how to use those feelings to light a fire under yourself, it can actually be a positive motivator in your work life. 

It’s malicious envy where things take a turn for the worse. Those feelings are not only negative, but almost always counterproductive. They can cause you to behave badly, upset the team dynamic, and damage your relationships with the people you work with.

How to deal with jealousy at work: 3 tips to handle it well

Exactly how you address jealous feelings will depend on who’s involved—if you’re the one feeling jealous, if a colleague is demonstrating jealous behaviors toward you, or if you’re a leader who notices that jealousy is running rampant on your team. 

Regardless of the specific dynamics and the role you play in them, there are a few tips that can be helpful for dealing with jealousy at work. 

1. Get to the root of emotions

In order to manage jealousy effectively, you need to understand it. That requires you to dig deeper than your surface-level grasp on your emotions.

Something called “the five whys” can be helpful here. While it’s frequently used as a problem solving technique, it’s also effective for pushing you to understand the undercurrent of your own emotions. It’s simple: you ask “why” five times. 

Let’s break it down using the example we’ve leaned on a few times: a coworker landed a promotion over you. Here’s what this thought process might look like: 

“I feel jealous of my coworker’s promotion.”

Why?

“I wanted that promotion.”

Why?

“I want to move up the ladder.”

Why?

“It’s important that I advance in my career.”

Why?

“I want to keep picking up new skills and experiences.”

Why?

“I’m worried about getting stuck.”

That simple exercise revealed something powerful: Your jealous feelings aren’t occurring simply because you wanted that promotion, but because you have a fear of stagnating in your own career.

Now there’s a lot you could do with that deeper piece of information. You could pursue continuing education and other professional development opportunities. You could toss your hat in the ring for new, challenging projects. You could explore other areas of the business. All the while, you’re proving to yourself that the promotion wasn’t the be-all-end-all. 

Pretty helpful, right? You can use this type of exercise with yourself, or even facilitate it with a group that’s experiencing conflict. 

2. Prioritize transparent communication

Jealousy runs rampant on teams that are highly-competitive. It feels like people are constantly one-upping each other, and that breeds envy when somebody else achieves something.

To combat against this, it’s helpful to prioritize candid and intentional communication—not just about wins and accomplishments, but about challenges, disappointments, and concerns. 

This helps you and other team members to view each other as fellow humans, rather than names you’re in a race against. Plus, this level of transparency helps to build psychological safety on a team so that people feel comfortable chasing big goals and ideas without the fear of failure or reprimands. 

3. Know when enough is enough

Many times, jealousy can be effectively managed personally or between two colleagues. But sometimes, things escalate to a point further steps need to be taken. This could include:

  • Bringing in an employee’s manager for intervention
  • Reporting incidents to the HR department
  • Terminating an employee who can’t successfully manage their emotions

In an ideal world, you wouldn’t reach that sort of boiling point. However, when jealousy is causing a lot of conflict, disagreement, tension, and negative behavior, it needs to be taken seriously and addressed appropriately. 

When 27% of employees say they’ve witnessed conflicts lead to personal attacks and another 25% have seen conflict result in sickness or absence, it’s important to understand when jealousy at work is no longer a normal workplace emotion and has snowballed into something far more toxic. At that point, it’s time to take more serious action. 

Jealousy at work: Normal and nuanced

Have you experienced jealous feelings at work? Noticed jealous behaviors from one of your coworkers? Or seen envy brewing between some of your direct reports? 

Well, that’s completely normal. And, jealousy at work isn’t inherently bad. In fact, the right kind of jealousy can actually be productive and motivating.

The key is to recognize the type of jealousy you’re dealing with and then manage it appropriately. Do that, and those seemingly negative feelings can be turned into a positive that gives your career and your team a major boost. 

Schedule a free demo to learn how F4S can measure and improve team dynamics and performance.

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