Does envy hinder productivity in the workplace?

by L&D22 Aug 2016
Have you ever witnessed a colleague get extra respect and attention from a supervisor that you feel you deserve?

The more that envy increases the more you can become "ego depleted", according to new research.

The result is a general lack of the “personal resources” you need to focus on and complete daily tasks.

In a University of Cincinnati Lindner College of Business study, Joel Koopman, UC assistant professor of management, looked at envy in the workplace.

His research found a clear link between an employee feeling envious after they perceive a supervisor has treated them worse relative to their co-workers, and the length of time by which they process this information.

Koopman called this a person's level of "epistemic motivation" (EM) - the desire to process information thoroughly and grasp the meaning behind a particular situation.

Some people are low in epistemic motivation and tend to generalise events into categories that can be easily explained and ignored. However, those people are not as skillful at solving novel problems in a creative environment.

While people high in such motivation are more sensitive to nuance and devote more time to processing new information as it comes in. In the case of envy, that skill can come at a cost.

"Research has shown that most creative working environments - ones that require a strong ability to negotiate and attend to detail - value employees who have a high level of epistemic motivation," said Koopman.

"But that same ability to process new information for creative output also tends to show its dark side when envy comes into play."

Koopman found that negative feelings followed envious people home, went to bed with them, woke up with them and stuck with them into the following day. Consequently, they lost valuable time and productivity.

His paper specifically looked at what happens when an employee feels they are treated worse than their co-workers and how they process those feelings of envy.

"In a whirling spiral, the more energy they expend on processing the injustice, the less their resources are, and they become less likely to help others in the office," Koopman said.

"This cycle can build to the point that tremendous time and energy is wasted on simply processing negative emotions, leaving critical work projects to flounder until resolutions are achieved."

Looking at previous research on behaviours in the workplace, Koopman found that supervisors treat employees differently mainly because of who they like and feel are the most trustworthy.

This becomes a problem when employees are aware of this differential treatment, which then drives the envy.

His research involved testing a group of participants with two surveys per day for 15 workdays, each day asking them how fairly they had been treated by their supervisor relative to their co-workers.

The survey measured for the possible experience of envy immediately, and then how that envy persisted into the next day.

Koopman's  paper is titled "My Coworkers are Treated Fairer than Me! The Depleting Effects of Justice Social Comparison Perceptions and Envy".