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I Want What You’ve Got: How Envy Destroys Leadership Decisions


Novak Djokovic openly coveted the crown for the most major titles in tennis history. It’s reasonable to assume he scrutinized every stroke of rival Rafael Nadal’s battle for the record 21st Grand Slam in Australia. But Djokovic’s visa debacle reminded me how goal orientation can contaminate decisions and how professional envy underpins much competition — a sentiment most high-achieving leaders appreciate.

One study shows 75% of people admit to career envy. And with millions of Google searches on the subject, it’s a real problem. But if you recognize and understand its roots, you can contain its destructive impact on professional decisions.

Understanding Envy

Despite being one of the seven deadly sins, envy is not openly discussed; it’s almost taboo. We feel it when someone has something we want and can’t easily obtain. Of course, what people want differs. You might covet recognition or a particular job title. Due to circumstances, lack of ability or financial means, you might simply be unable to attain your goal.

Envy is related to perceived fairness and identity. Research by psychologist Abraham Tesser shows that people are unhappier when the source of envy is a close colleague or neighbor rather than a celebrity or stranger. You’re unlikely to envy Elon Musk unless you’re in his social circle. This psychological proximity has also been found to affect the neighbors of lottery winners — a classic case of social comparison.

Envy is a complex emotion. It differs from jealousy, which can evoke rage or humiliation and lead to crimes of passion. It also differs from admiration, which is warmer in nature. Former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes admired rather than envied Steve Jobs and became desperate to emulate him, firmly believing in her ability to create the "iPod of healthcare."

Interestingly, research shows men and women tend to envy different things. Women tend to envy appearance and popularity, while men envy financial resources and status items.

Impact On Decision-Making

Emotional leaders tend to make poor decision makers. Envy is a decision distraction, impacting your ability to process important information with a cool head and make rational choices. Stewing in silent misery, the envious can respond in various ways. Some choose sabotage and attempt to poison the target’s reputation. Some can become so mentally paralyzed they can’t move forward. Others quit.

Unmanaged envy impacts investment decisions. CEOs who experience compensation envy are more likely to engage in merger activity and pay higher prices. This is a concern as KPMG estimates that M&A deals reached an all-time high of $6 trillion in 2021, a trend that is set to continue.

This toxic emotion hurts work culture. Its contagious negativity lowers morale, team spirit and performance. As envy appears petty, managers often try to conceal it. But it leaks. What’s more, the effort of concealment is emotionally draining, depleting energy that should be reserved for sound judgment.

Envy can backfire on consumer decisions as well. A study in Brazil found brands that use malicious envy to inspire consumers to achieve beauty or wealth goals can damage loyalty, pushing consumers toward competitors. Not everyone can be Dior-perfect or drive a Mercedes.

The Envious And The Envied: How To Spot And Control Envy

It’s important to spot envy in yourself and others. When others get the recognition or glory you feel entitled to, or when a rival is publicly praised, your self-esteem can take a hit. You may dream of diminishing a colleague's success and even delight in their slip-ups. While a common feeling, this isn’t the hallmark of an effective leader and has undone many. A wise chief investment officer once advised me to manage success and try to contain envy in others. He was right.

Curbing envy is more important than ever. It strikes in economic uncertainty or moments of vulnerability. By understanding the psychology of envy, you can control it more easily in yourself and others. Drawing on decades of proven scientific research, I suggest ten strategies to escape this debilitating mindset and prevent it from destroying decisions.

The Envied:

1. Don’t hog the perks. Scarcity heightens envy, so share the spoils. Some people hide wins to reduce perceived boasting.

2. Reward value-driven behaviors. Choose collaboration and empathy rather than singling out certain personality types. For example, if a company emphasizes the value of creatives, analysts may feel excluded and envy creatives.

3. Use envy to motivate. Great managers harness envy for healthy competition. But this is a skill. Wharton professor Adam Grant suggests that "takers envy the success of others. Givers enjoy the success of others."

4. Be alert to stalkers. Enemies may develop an unhealthy interest in others, scrutinizing their activities to criticize rather than emulate performance.

5. Observe envy at critical junctures. Watch for snarky snipes and undermining comments among team members. Envy negates the desire to learn from colleagues or accept their ideas.

The Envious:

1. Reorient toward gratitude. Concentrate on your own proven capabilities to boost self-esteem and sustain confidence.

2. Reduce relative comparisons. Comparisons only make you feel bad — like discovering a colleague’s salary. Measure your present self against your past self to appreciate how far you’ve come.

3. Decouple the person from the attribute. Ask if you resent the whole person or just their skill. Then try to improve that skill in yourself.

4. Review contact levels. It might be hard to avoid the offending colleague but deliberate distance can help. Conversely, spending time with the envied helps dilute toxicity and humanizes them. But be careful — closeness can backfire.

5. Regain perspective. Nobody has everything. Even the rich envy the richer. Marketeers deliberately manipulate emotion. This is inevitable, but don’t let it consume performance

Situations change. Keeping goals in perspective can neutralize their dark side and mobilize smarter decisions. What you envy will pass. Another challenge, another opportunity, will come along. For Djokovic, there will always be another Grand Slam. With greater understanding of human behavior, you can be better prepared to convert envy from an emotional liability to an asset.


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