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Envy, Jealousy, Resentment – The “Comparison” Emotions at Work

July 7, 2011

“Comparing is a trap that permeates our lives, especially if we’re high-need-for-achievement professionals.” Thomas DeLong, Harvard Business Review

Working with emotional intelligence in the workplace since the late’90’s, I’ve found there are three emotions that many people don’t like to admit to feeling – envy, jealousy and resentment.  This is understandable.   Owning our human experience of envy, jealousy and resentment isn’t attractive – but it’s vitally important to do.

“Envy, says author Bruna Martinuzzi, the “unmentionable” emotion, is perhaps one of the most pervasive and powerful of all the disruptive emotions that affect our corporate environments.”

Often used synonymously, envy and jealousy have different meanings.

Envy, starts with the desire for something that someone else has.  Unchecked it can escalate to harboring ill will or acting out against the object of our envy.  Envy says – I want what you have.  When we envy, we are acting on a belief that having this thing we want will provide us with greater stature or happiness – and that not having this thing diminishes us in some way.  The thing can be anything:  looks, money, position, relationship, even time.

Jealousy, envy’s cousin, usually carries more suspicion. We believe in some way that the thing we want and do not have rightly belongs to us. Typically, jealousy is associated with another person.

Resentment is usually a companion emotion to envy and jealousy.  Why don’t we have this thing – and why do they?  Resentment gnaws away at us and can be a springboard to anger, hatred and even depression.

All three have one important factor in common – they are fueled by making comparisons. From the time we are young children, we begin to measure ourselves by what others do – and what they have.  It’s a natural human impulse that can only be tempered by what we as adults learn and implement in our thinking management.

There’s a direct line between what we think, how we feel and how we behave – and when we compare we trigger a feeling. 

Where Does Envy, Jealousy and Resentment Come From?

We all arrive in adulthood with a load of emotional baggage.  Our nature which takes the form of our personality, style and psychological makeup plays a major role. So does nurture – how we are raised and conditioned shapes our inherent state.   But culture is a huge factor in how we define and measure our self-worth, self-image and self-esteem.  The early messages we introjected about success, achievement, accomplishment, competition, status, power, fairness and justice all laid the foundation for the values and beliefs that fuel our feelings of envy, jealousy and resentment.

Understanding how we are neurally hard-wired for these emotions can also give us important insights into how they function.  

Our judging mind is a critical enabler in generating envy, jealousy and resentment.  One part of our brain, the neo-cortex (the so-called rational mind) brilliantly sifts through information, draws on information and past experiences and makes assessments.  The other part of our brain (the ancient Reptilian brain) is also busy trolling the environment and making judgments.  But this part of our brain doesn’t mitigate information with reason. Its job is survival.  Its unconscious reactivity plays a key role in the fight or flight response. Will it eat me or will I eat it is the still the primary domain of the so-called Lizard Brain.

In recent years, research has found that the same area of the brain that controls envy and jealousy is the same part that detects physical pain. It’s interesting that the part of the brain which detects physical pain is also associated with mental pain, said Hidehiko Takahashi, who led the research.

The Workplace is an Emotional Cauldron

It is easy to see why envy, jealousy and resentment are routinely triggered in most workplaces.  Position, power arrangements, lack of trust and transparency, miscommunication, time pressures and real or perceived scarcity of resources can pit people against colleagues and the “competition.”

 In fact, unbalanced competitiveness can set the stage for envy, jealousy, resentment and greed. Because competition is the primary ethos that drives Western business, competing with others is an expected and even desirable function of the business model.  Often the language of competition is filled with war and sports metaphors, further increasing the chance that emotions like envy and jealousy will become triggered, even habituated responses.

In his Harvard Business Review article, The Comparing Trap, Thomas DeLong points out, “No matter how successful we are and how many goals we achieve, this trap causes us to recalibrate our accomplishments and reset the bar for how we define success. What we’ve done in the past doesn’t matter; real success or achievement requires something more – a title we’ve never held, a task we’ve never done, a company we’ve never worked for. The process of comparing requires us to keep making our target more difficult to hit. And if we manage to hit this difficult target, we simply create an even more difficult one at which to aim.

The Drivers for Envy, Jealousy and Resentment

At the core of our motivation are needs.   We’re not talking about “business” needs here, but about our fundamental universal core needs – for physical well-being, connection to others, peace of mind and meaning in our lives.  Most of us aren’t well-versed in identifying what needs are driving us (they underlie every value and belief we have) but everything we do is in satisfaction of a need. 

From a needs perspective, being in a state of envy, jealousy and resentment is the polar opposite of feeling safety, tranquility and equanimity.  These emotions enable a state of expansiveness. On the other hand, when we are experiencing envy, jealousy and resentment, we feel a state of contraction – physically, emotionally and mentally.  When we experience these emotions, our needs are not being met. Even when we are aware of our needs deficit, we rationalize our state as temporary – on our way to satisfaction.  Too many people stay in this “stuck state,” trying to function from this unsatisfying place, chasing the next goal.

Are there any positives to experiencing the emotions of envy, jealousy and resentment?  Yes – every emotion holds potentially valuable information about our needs – albeit sometimes challenging.  Your emotions provide you with a continuous barometer of whether you are meeting your needs – or not.  Feeling calm or confident or enthusiastic – needs met. Feeling envious, jealous or resentful – good chance your needs aren’t met.

In describing envy, New York Times author Natalie Angier writes, Envy may help keep us in line, making us so desperate to look good that we take the high road and start to act good, too. We struggle with our private envy, our longing for more esteem than we command, and the struggle only sharpens the painful contrast between the imagined perfection of the envied adversary that we have enshrined on an imaginary throne, and the defective merchandise that is ourselves.  If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon,” Bertrand Russell said. “But Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.” If envy is a tax levied by civilization, it is one that everyone must pay.”

Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, subscribe, share, like and tweet this article. It’s appreciated.

Louise Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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