3 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Use Envy to Fuel Success

With the right mindset, envy can be a great motivator and idea generator. Here's how to use it as a tool for success.

learn more about Joel B. Carnevale

By Joel B. Carnevale

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As an entrepreneur in today's dynamic and competitive environment, you're likely needing to routinely scan and process social information in order to stand out from your competitors and remain relevant. But when you're constantly needing to compare your opportunities and advantages with those of other entrepreneurs, it's easy to experience painful emotions, like envy, when such comparisons are unfavorable.

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Entrepreneurial envy is felt in response to another entrepreneur's success or perceived superiority. In general, we often think of entrepreneurial envy as being detrimental to entrepreneurs' success. After all, envy can decrease a person's ability to generate new ideas and may cause them to give up more easily. But envy can also be a positive force for entrepreneurs.

Benign versus malicious envy

Research has shown that envy can be felt in two distinct ways — one that is painful and hostile (malicious envy) and one that is painful yet productive (benign envy). Although both forms reflect feelings of inferiority and frustration, they each promote distinct motivational drives: malicious envy motivates ill-will or worse, destructive behavior, directed toward the envied target, whereas benign envy motivates a desire to improve one's relative standing. When expressed in malicious ways, entrepreneurial envy is likely to be harmful as it can cause entrepreneurs to focus their attention and energies on the envied entrepreneur at the expense of the venture. But when expressed in benign ways, envy can serve as a valuable motivating force that can help entrepreneurs develop new ideas, capitalize on new opportunities, and work hard to ensure their ventures are successful.

Below are three tips that can help you overcome malicious entrepreneurial envy, and potentially channel such feelings into ways that can actually help your venture succeed:

1. Understand others' successes and failures

When you see other entrepreneurs doing well, it may be easy to feel that they rarely if ever suffer failures or setbacks. But this type of thinking fuels malicious envy. And, it is often an illusion. People have a natural tendency to publicize their successes and conceal their failures from others. So oftentimes, if you see other entrepreneurs doing well, you're only seeing one side of the story. But understanding that these entrepreneurs often experience failure, too, can help mitigate feelings of malicious envy. One study, for example, examined envy within entrepreneurship pitch competitions. They found that when entrepreneurs openly acknowledged both their successes and failures (compared to successes only) during their presentations, fellow observing entrepreneurs were less likely to feel malicious envy and instead reported stronger motivation to improve their own ventures.

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2. Reflect on your own successes

One of the reasons malicious envy is so harmful is that it chips away at your perceived control of the situation, making you feel helpless to better your current position. But you can combat these feelings by reflecting on your past achievements and successes. Research, for example, shows that people who hold positive self-views about their competence and abilities are more likely to try to learn from envied others. When dealing with entrepreneurial envy, reflecting on your own strengths and achievements can provide the confidence-boost needed to feel secure enough to learn, and perhaps even seek advice, from an envied entrepreneur.

3. Seek out collaboration.

It can also be helpful to try to foster a relationship and maybe even collaborate with the envied entrepreneur, if possible. Research shows that you are much more likely to channel your envy in ways that motivate self-improvement when you see the envied target in favorable ways (trustworthy, helpful, etc.). This is because when you see an envied other as a friend, rather than a foe, you tend to be more aware of the consequences of your actions. If building a relationship with an envied entrepreneur isn't possible, it may be helpful to try to find the good in what they do. This could mean focusing on ways they give back to the community, treat their employees fairly, or provide an important service to customers. Whatever it takes to enhance your positive feelings and good-will toward them.

Related: Why the Most Successful Businesses Follow These 7 Natural Laws

Entrepreneurial envy can be a mixed-blessing for entrepreneurs: benign envy can facilitate entrepreneurial success, whereas malicious envy can stifle it. The key is to understand the true nature of others' successes, acknowledge your own successes, and actively build positive relationships.

Joel B. Carnevale

Entrepreneur Leadership Network Contributor

Assistant Professor of Management at Syracuse University

Joel Carnevale is an assistant professor of management at Syracuse University’s Martin J. Whitman School of Management. His research focuses on employee ethicality, prosocial behavior and the dark-side of leader personality.

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