How Envy Costs & What To Do About It

Why do kids say the darnedest things?

It’s because they haven’t developed the social filters that we’re “supposed” to use. Rather than employ the more complex skills of tact and nuance, kids share what they’re really feeling and thinking: uncensored and unfiltered.This blunt honesty can be a valuable window into understanding human motivation.

This past weekend, I witnessed a demonstration of one child’s direct honesty.

OK, full disclosure.  It was my child.Miranda (my nine year old daughter) and I were in the midst of a heart to heart conversation.I had to share some bad news with her.  I’m going to have to be away from home in the middle of March for a multi-day business trip.

That’s pretty normal.What makes it bad is that I’m going to be away on her 10th birthday.

Miranda is a sensitive soul, and I knew she’d be upset.  When I told her I’d have to be away, I could feel the sadness well up in her instantly.I knew this would probably happen.  So I had a plan in place.

I followed up and said,

Miranda, I’m really sad too.  I’d like to be here for your birthday. But we can have an amazing celebration over the weekend.  If we could go anywhere or do anything to celebrate, what would you want to do?

In my mind, I thought I was offering a pretty decent trade-off.It wasn’t like a sprung the bad news at the last minute: I was sharing the info two months in advance.  I was also putting myself out there.  I didn’t know how she’d reply to “go anywhere or do anything”, but if it was within reason, I was prepared to do it.I thought maybe she’d want to take a trip to New York City and see a show.Or have a sleep-over party with fifteen of her closest girl friends.

But I was completely wrong.  What she said instead shocked me.Miranda said,What I really want is for you to go away and miss Alexander’s birthday, too.Alexander is her twelve year old brother.I stopped to reflect:  What would make Miranda happy was to have her brother suffer as well.  Wow.

Miranda had tapped into a deep human emotion:  Schadenfreude (pleasure at the misfortune of others).   It feels good when others feel bad.

Research has shown that schadenfreude correlates with envy.   And it turns out that Miranda is not alone. Psychologists have found that all too often envy is the reason we behave the way we do.  It seems many people would rather lose out on gain, as long as someone else loses out more than they do.According to other research, nearly 90 percent of the population can be divided into four basic temperaments in their approach to life:

  • Optimistic

  • Pessimistic

  • Trusting

  • Envious

(The other 10 percent is classified as “random”.)

Optimistic, pessimistic and trusting each include about 20 percent of the population.Envious includes 30 percent.  Which means it’s an extremely common mindset.

As a leader, if you pretend that envy doesn’t exist, you’re doing yourself and your team a disservice. Envy can damage a workplace.  It’s been found that envy decreases job satisfaction and engagement and increases turnover.In addition, when you are experiencing envy, you’re unable to do your best thinking. Envy, (as a negative emotion) puts your body into a stress state.  You have less cognitive bandwidth available.

The negative consequences of envy is are severe.  The negativity can hit you and your team.  spread.  As a leader, you there are things you can do to lessen envy’s impact on you and your team.


  1. Be aware.

What is it that your actually envious of?  It’s easy to just react to the stimuli around us.  Specifically, what is prompting your negative emotion?  Is it someone else’s promotion?  More money?  Recognition?When you get clear on what makes you envious, you also get clear on what matters more to you.  You can’t change what you don’t notice.

2. Think apples to apples.

When you compare yourself to others, you cherry pick certain qualities to compare against.  When you play this game, you’re bound to lose.Instead, think of competing against yourself.  How are you performing against the metrics vs. last year?  You’ll get a much more useful assessment.

3. Focus on strengths, not flaws

If you find yourself in a bowl of envy soup, you’re likely seeing your own performance through a negative lens.  It’s easy to forget about all that you have accomplished.  Take time to remind yourself of your strengths.  It provides fuel to keep moving forward.


As a leader, you may face the complex situation where team members are not just envious of each other, but envious of you.  You can’t make this go away completely.  People notice things like titles, level, position, status, rewards, power and recognition.  These elements are part of life in a hierarchy.However, within your culture, there are things you can do.

1. Give and share credit.

Great leaders build up others.  Look for opportunities where your people can bask in glory of their good work.  You will build a team where people love working for you and with you.

2. Be resourceful with resources

One of the the things that creates envy is a scarcity mindset.  If people think that they won’t get their fair share, they become scared and anxious.When you consider all of your resources (time, money, team, information, etc.) how can you create abundance?  For example, if you have an employee who wants more professional development opportunities, how can you draw on the in-house expertise?

How can you bring a sense of calm, flexibility and abundance to your resource management?  When you share more openly, you create higher levels of trust and lower levels of envy

.3. Create Different Sandboxes to Play In

Envy comes from a relationship between the envier and the envied.  If each has their own sandbox at work, with separate roles and separate performance measures, then you can tamp down the fires that come from direct comparison/competition.

In our technologically connected age, it’s so easy to fall victim to the envy trap.  Anyone with an internet connection can reach out and see how someone else is faring better.   Rather than make your organization a place of anxiety, you have the power to build a team of sustained support.

What other ways do you deal with envy?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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