Success Strategies

3 Positive Ways to Harness Career Envy

Examining your envy without judgment allows you to move past that sour emotion and toward your goal.
3 Positive Ways to Harness Career Envy
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Do you ever feel a pang of envy when you learn of colleague’s success?

Perhaps they landed that highly sought after client or were singled out by management for exceptional performance in front of the whole company. Maybe they were celebrated in the media.

You want to feel authentically happy for them, but part of you is also envious.

Envy is something all of us feel from time to time. Some of us are more aware of our envy than others and joke about it, saying,“I’m so envious!” or “I envy you…”

In the Harvard Business Review’s Envy at Work, Tania Menon and Leigh Thomson write that if unchecked, envy can be harmful:

“Envy damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines organizational performance. Most of all, it harms the one who feels it. When you’re obsessed with someone else’s success, your self-respect suffers, and you may neglect or even sabotage your own performance and possibly your career. Envy is difficult to manage, in part because it’s hard to admit that we harbor such a socially unacceptable emotion. Our discomfort causes us to conceal and deny our feelings, and that makes things worse. Repressed envy inevitably resurfaces, stronger than ever.”

Related: How Emotionally Brilliant Leaders Turn Envy Into Something Much More Beneficial

Envy can kill opportunities for someone else and for you -- so be careful to recognize it. Envy can be really good or really dangerous.

Instead of ignoring or repressing envy, you can make it work for you and your team.

Here are three ways that I’ve discovered:

1. Ask yourself what is your envy telling you?  

For example, your colleague got a promotion to a much higher position than you and you’re not 100 percent happy for her. What does that tell you?  Do you want more responsibility? Or respect? Or position?  

Gretchen Rubin, author of New York Times bestsellers, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, tells of reading her Law School’s alumni magazine and realizing that she wasn’t envious of her friends who were rising in the legal profession; it was those who were becoming published authors that she envied. She used it as a datapoint for herself and listened to it. It motivated her to leave the legal profession and become an author, and a highly successful one at that.

Could your envy be telling you that you need to think differently or bigger about your possibilities? There may be something you learn from the example of the person you envy.

I’ve had to learn this lesson throughout my career. Recently, I realized that I envied someone and after some thought, recognized that a big part of her success is that she is not afraid to ask others to help her by introducing her to others who could help her business grow. Asking for that kind of help has never been easy for me to do and it is clear that it is a key part of her success.  

Related: How to Deal With Stress, Anxiety and Envy

So, I’m taking steps to do this more often and it is a revelation. People like to help and it builds relationships. I no longer envy my acquaintance, because I found admirable traits in her -- our friendship has grown and is now mutually beneficial because of this.

2. Remember and affirm all the good in yourself.

It’s a fact and it’s true. Often, when we “compare and despair,” which is the kernel of envy, we forget about all of the progress and positive things that have already happened recently, and over time. Think of five aspects of your work and career where you have achieved or exceeded your goals or received positive feedback.

I save and print out exceptionally glowing emails from customers or colleagues and refer to them from time to time to renew my perspective -- success builds on success.

Focus on the good and be thankful; what you focus on, grows.

In HBR’s "When It’s Hard to Celebrate Your Colleague’s Success," leadership expert Ron Ashkenas writes:

“Don’t focus on other people; focus on yourself. Comparing yourself with others is natural and can be motivational. However, too much of it leads to envy, especially if you’re ungenerous toward yourself. Instead, try measuring your present self against your past self.”

Recently when I was feeling unproductive, I spent a few moments looking back on the past nine months and realized I’d launched a website, mobile app, written 100 articles and guest-blogged in among others.

It reminded me that I’ve been more productive than I realized. It also affirmed that the simple act of quantifying achievements can transform how you think -- especially when you encounter envy.

Ashkenas writes, Though recognizing your emotional triggers and your own accomplishments can help you check envy, you still might not rejoice in others’ successes. If you feel threatened every time a perceived rival does well, you can squelch your knee-jerk resentment by doing one simple thing: reminding yourself of your own strengths and successes.”

3. Take the high road.

It’s tempting to diminish the person you envy, to discredit their success at the water cooler, or gossip among friends. But it harms them and you. You will not be your best self if you do it. And you need your better self to achieve all you aspire to. This is a radical thought because many people openly criticize and diminish the person they envy. It hurts them, it will stall your progress and diminish your reputation.  

Related: Overcoming Entrepreneurial Envy

“When people have qualities we envy but cannot easily acquire, like beauty or charm, we tend to dismiss the value of those qualities and even treat them with scorn. We make ourselves feel better by belittling the accomplishments of the person we resent…by saying things like 'Well, he was just lucky,' or 'He just got the plum assignment because he plays politics.'” -- Envy at Work.

Using this language calls into question the fairness of managers and, by extension, the legitimacy of the organization as a whole, which impacts you and the organization negatively and diminishes your ability to succeed as a leader.

Envy is not a particularly pleasant emotion and some of us automatically deny or repress it. By putting it out in the open and considering it, you remove its power to harm you and your relationships and you can put it to work for you -- benefiting you, your team and your entire organization.