Taming the ‘green-eyed monster’ at work.

Taming the ‘green-eyed monster’ at work

22 February 2022

The article at a glance

Should I stay or should I go? Envious employees who strive for cooperation are more likely to be absent and quit than those who seek to excel at work, finds a new study co-authored by Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Should I stay or should I go? Envious employees who strive for co-operation are more likely to be absent and quit than those who seek to excel at work, finds a new study co-authored by Dr Jochen Menges of Cambridge Judge Business School.

Envy toward colleagues is a common element of workplaces, but how do envious workers decide a key question: should I stay or should I go? A just-published study finds that it may depend on whether the worker strives for co-operation (more likely to go) or achievement (more likely to stay). The research cautions that “employee of the month” or other competitive awards can spark envy and resignations.

The study published in the Journal of Organizational Behavior finds that for co-operation-striving employees, envy is associated with more workplace absences and increased turnover, but it suggests that for achievement-seeking workers envy is linked to fewer absences and resignations.

Employees who seek “communion” (defined in the study as a motivation to develop co-operative affiliations with others) wish to get along with others, whereas achievement-seekers want to do things better and have a desire for mastery and excellence.

Focus on ‘avoidance-oriented’ behaviour rather than ‘pulling down’ work colleagues

The study provides a fresh and nuanced understanding of envy and behaviour. Most academic research has centred on how envious employees seek to reduce the gap between themselves and envied colleagues by “pulling down” the envied or pulling themselves up – or what’s known as “approach-oriented” behaviour. The new study instead focuses on how to escape the envy through “avoidance-oriented” behaviour such as quitting a job.

“In organisational life, avoidance behaviours include skipping work; this initial, temporary withdrawal often deteriorates such that avoidance eventually takes the form of turnover, with employees permanently leaving their place of employment,” the study says. “These actions do not involve reducing the gap between the self and envied others, but rather entail escaping from the triggers of envy (ie one’s colleagues and place of work) altogether.”

In addition, the new study challenges previous findings that feeling close to envied colleagues buffers feelings of envy and thus mitigates undermining behaviour toward them; the new research instead demonstrates that “a communal orientation can exacerbate avoidance-oriented behaviours”. The authors say this surprising finding represents a “problematic response to envy”.

Implications for workplace managers

Jochen Menges.
Dr Jochen Menges

“There are clear management implications for these findings,” says co-author Jochen Menges, Professor at the University of Zurich and Associate Professor in Organisational Behaviour at Cambridge Judge Business School.

“Envy is usually associated with detrimental consequences in both workplace and social settings, and our study indeed finds that envy is associated with more workplace withdrawal for some people. But the study also suggests that envy is associated with reduced absence and turnover among achievement-striving employees, or those who seek to excel at work, and this should be an important consideration for managers in dealing with the complex nature of envy.”

Specifically, the study says that managers should think critically about practices that engender social comparison processes such as “employee of the month” awards, because they may “become a source of envy, especially if they are highly public, individualistic, or come with additional rewards like a monetary bonus”. Those who seek communion at work may withdraw and quit if such recognition honours jeopardise their relationships by sparking envy.

“These findings hold implications for the shifting social dynamics of the workplace in the aftermath of the pandemic,” comments Jochen Menges. “If collaboration becomes more important, then triggers of envy risk driving those employees away that are best suited for co-operative endeavours – those striving for communion at work.”

The study is based on employees of high-end supermarkets in Indonesia that provide a competitive atmosphere for employees seeking to please their affluent customers. The findings were obtained from completed surveys from 676 store staff members working across 147 teams (ranging from cashiers to butchers) in 23 stores, along with Human Resources Department information on absenteeism and voluntary turnover.

“The concept of envy has captured the attention of philosophers, leaders of religious organisations, and society at large, and it will continue to be pertinent to organisational life as the nature of work evolves,” the authors conclude.

The research of Dr Jochen Menges often revolves around the joys and challenges of the workplace including, as in the envy study, the role of emotions and motivation in organisational life.

A study co-authored by Jochen late last year, “Remote work mindsets predict emotions and productivity in home office: a longitudinal study of knowledge workers during the COVID-19 pandemic”, examined the timely subject of remote work, suggesting that benefits of working away from the office often depend on the mindset of the person involved: whether a person holds a “fixed mindset” about remote work impacts whether or not they struggle with the transition to working away from a fixed workplace.

Jochen’s work also looks in depth about relations between co-workers, and the role of leadership in organisations. Another study published last year, “How employees react to unsolicited and solicited advice in the workplace: implications for using advice, learning, and performance”, found that people react negatively to unsolicited advice in the workplace regardless of whether they are friends with the advice provider or whether the two people are part of the same social circle, a result that Jochen and his co-authors found surprising.

The ‘monster’ of envy affects people differently based on their goals

The new envy study aims to shed light on previous contradictory findings in other research on envy, and to offer new insight on avoidance-oriented behaviour.

“Our study suggests that envy is a ‘green-eyed monster’ for communion strivers in the workplace, who respond to envy with more absenteeism and ultimately turnover. The monster seems less banishing for those who seek to excel at work, as our findings suggest that achievement strivers are less likely to enact avoidance behaviours when they experience envy. In contrast, status striving does not moderate the relationship between envy and avoidance behaviours. If our research has one overriding message, it is thus that envy affects people differently depending on the goals for which they strive.”

The study in the Journal of Organizational Behavior – entitled “Should I stay or should I go? The role of individual strivings in shaping the relationship between envy and avoidance behaviours at work” – is co-authored by Danielle V. Tussing of the University of Buffalo School of Management; Andreas Wihler of the University of Exeter Business School; Timothy V. Astandu of Populix, a consumer insights platform in Indonesia; and Dr Jochen Menges of the Department of Business Administration at the University of Zurich and Cambridge Judge Business School.