Your co-worker scored a promotion, a plum project, yet another shout-out in the team meeting.
In our best moments—secure, confident, able to keep our eyes on our own paper—it feels easy to offer congratulations and get on with our day. At other times, jealousy can creep in. Threatened by a colleague or outside rival’s superstar turn, questioning our own dreams and talents and follow-through, we fall into the comparison trap.
“It’s just a natural human thing,” says Tanya Menon, a management professor at Ohio State University’s business school. “We’re social animals. We want to know where we stand in the hierarchy.”
So what do you do when the answer is: not as high as that guy in accounting who’s killing it? How do you work through feelings of envy, anxiety and even anger, and keep them from sabotaging your career? Can jealousy ever be helpful?
The first step is simply acknowledging your feelings, Dr. Menon says, and refraining from judging or burying them. She defines true envy as destructive: You try to sabotage a colleague’s success, you refuse to collaborate.
“I really think the dangerous stuff happens when we’re actually in denial about it,” she says. “We say, ‘No, I’m feeling just fine. But I’m going to attack the other person in all kinds of pernicious ways.’ ”
Just feeling competitive with a colleague isn’t toxic in and of itself. The trick is to remember that success isn’t a scarce resource, and to let the feelings fuel you to up your own game. Wanting to outdo worthy rivals can push us in that way.
Such upward comparisons are “motivating but painful,” Dr. Menon says.
When a new employee joined Deanna Hutchison’s team at BBG, a Cleveland-based benefits brokerage, she was equal parts relieved to have help with a workload that had grown onerous and “anxious about the fact that she might be better than me.”
A former teacher, Ms. Hutchison had jumped into her role as an account manager with no formal training, learning as she went. The new hire had years of experience and an assertive demeanor that the more soft-spoken Ms. Hutchison admired. What if no one needed her anymore?
She approached her boss, confessing her worries. Talking it through and getting reassurance from him that the company still valued and needed her did help. Still, when the colleague offered up sharp ideas—like suggesting a new software system that boosted efficiency—it sometimes stung.
Ms. Hutchison started asking herself, “Is what she’s proposed actually helping me?”
“In reality, it has,” she realized.
Being on the receiving end of envy can be fraught, too. While working for an entertainment company years ago, Erin Person had a colleague who often appeared to resent when Ms. Person would nab a deal or receive a perk like event tickets.
“Her reaction was, ‘Why didn’t I get it?’ ” says Ms. Person, now the Los Angeles-based chief executive of ConnectEO Network, an online community for entrepreneurs. Frustrated with negative chatter in the office, Ms. Person confronted the colleague, telling her she had hoped they’d be collaborators and didn’t understand why they seemed to clash.
She’d hoped the talk would clear the way for a warm relationship, but instead the colleague remained aloof. (Though the office gossip died down, at least.)
Ms. Person still wonders if some of the tension stemmed from the fact that they were both Black women, the only two in the department. Maybe the workplace had the colleague feeling like there wasn’t room for them both, she says.
Melody Wilding, an executive coach and social worker in Jersey City, N.J., noticed an uptick in self-doubt and impostor syndrome among her clients during the pandemic.
“We’re alone in our heads so much more,” she says.
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Even as we re-emerge into the world, festering jealousy can prompt workers to throw out passive-aggressive barbs or simply retreat, avoiding meetings where they feel intimidated. Such moves can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, hurting employees’ promotion prospects, says Ms. Wilding, author of “Trust Yourself,” a book about navigating emotions at work. She recommends workers keep a “brag file” where they document their wins each week.
“You are the one hyping yourself up,” Ms. Wilding says, “not just being dependent on other people to recognize you and tell you you’re great.”
Jessica Ko, CEO of Playbook.com, a San Francisco-based cloud-storage company, distributes praise to her employees privately via direct message. She noticed that broadcasting compliments companywide tended to invoke agita among workers, who always seemed to be wondering, “Is this person going to be the CEO’s favorite?” Ms. Ko says.
Rand Fishkin, now CEO of SparkToro, a Seattle-based market-research software company, spent years idolizing high-profile tech founders as he built an earlier startup, the marketing software firm Moz.
“You look and you go, ‘Gosh, I’m just not good enough,’ ” he says. “Why can’t I get the breaks?”
The obsession pushed him to lead the company down the wrong path at times, he says, chasing venture capital and working himself and his team “to the bone.”
Ultimately, he stepped down from the CEO role at Moz and rethought his priorities, moving things like hitting exponential growth targets down the list.
These days, he sometimes experiences slight pangs of jealousy when hearing of other founders’ successes. But the feeling is more like admiration, he says: “Yes, that’s who I want to be.”
Don’t Let Envy Own You
How to work through feelings of jealousy and keep them from hurting you at the office:
* Acknowledge your emotions: Don’t deny or judge negative feelings when they pop up. Remember that it’s completely natural—if sometimes painful—to compare yourself with others.
* Fake it if you have to: Send the congratulatory note, even if you wish you were the one winning the promotion. You’ll start to see yourself as the bigger person, says professor Tanya Menon.
* Build your confidence: Try creating a brag file, where you keep a record of your accomplishments and strengths, says executive coach Melody Wilding.
* Rethink your habits: Are the people you follow on social media inspiring you, or just making you feel terrible? CEO Rand Fishkin recommends people evaluate what they read and consume online, and even some of the friends and colleagues they hang out with. If the interactions are more hurtful than helpful, unfollow or add a little distance.
Write to Rachel Feintzeig at firstname.lastname@example.org
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