Monday, November 1, 2010

HBR - Envy at work

Three Stars
"Envy At Work", from the April 2010 issue of HBR.

Why is envy a bad thing? For one it is considered one of the seven deadly sins. It damages your self-respect. It makes you obsess with the other person's success, when you should really be focused on your own success. That causes you stop working towards your own performance, your success.
Envy damages relationships, disrupts teams, and undermines organizational performance.
And the bloody feeling is so difficult to admit, isn't it? When the other person gets promoted, or recognized, or praised, or a bigger salary hike, or stock options, or a bonus, or a bigger cubicle, or a bigger office, how many people go and congratulate the person, "Congratulations Bob. You sure worked hard as hell in sucking up to the boss. I would have fired you and your sorry posterior long back, after tarring your face, had I been your boss. I should have got that promotion, and I deserve it, and you don't, and you never will. But congratulations again!" Nah! You aren't doing that, are you? Mostly the congratulations are going to be of the form, "Hey! Congratulations Bob! Well done", delivered with clenched teeth. Most of the time there is a stony silence and an even stonier glare. Right? There is no emoticon or clenched-teeth-smiley for that, yet. And how do we explain it ourselves and others? "Of course he was going to get promoted. After all, he is the boss' yes-man" or "He gets to have spend time with the boss, so of course he is going to be promoted" or "that was MY idea he stole and passed it off as his own, and if I go to the boss now, I will be seen as just being negative."

The authors claim, ambitiously I would opine,
In the course of our research, we’ve found that it is possible to prevent yourself from being consumed by envy and even to harness it to your advantage. In this article we’ll explain how to recognize potentially destructive thoughts and behaviors; refocus them into more generous, productive ones; and make yourself more open to others, more receptive to change, and more fulfilled at work. We will also off er suggestions for managing envy within your team.
Even without reading any further, I think this paragraph sets impossibly high goals to meet. Let's see how the authors actually fare.

Sour grapes.
Envy manifests itself mostly in the form of disparagement and distancing.
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
Psychologists have often termed this as a "coping mechanism" or a "defence mechanism." Disparagement and distancing, along with trivialization, intellectualization, and even denial, are all forms of coping with someone else's success.
However, as Scott's charm catapulted him higher, Marty’s envy won out. He undermined Scott in conversations at the watercooler, seethed whenever his rival spoke at meetings, and barely made eye contact with him. Marty grew disengaged from the organization as well, distancing himself from teammates and refusing to mentor younger analysts ... Once considered a superstar, Marty now lacked passion for his work and performed poorly.

Be friends with strangers
Yes. If you don't know someone who succeeds, you will not be as unhappy as when someone you know succeeds.
According to psychologist Abraham Tesser, people are indeed unhappier when a close friend succeeds in a personally relevant domain than when a stranger does. Strangers are an abstraction...
How To Be Successful, and Less Envious
This is what the authors suggest for individuals:
  • Pinpoint what makes you envious
  • Don’t focus on other people; focus on yourself.
  • Affirm yourself.
And for teams and managers:
  • Share power
  • Make what is scarce plentiful (have plenty of one on one meetings with your team members)
  • Beware of linguistic triggers
  • Give enviers and their targets different spheres of influence

That's it? No secret mantra to chant every morning? No ritualistic effigy burning advice to exorcise the demons of envy? No shouting profanities into a pillow? Hmm... doing the right thing is tougher than it is. It is easy to write about it, but difficult to practice.

I would say that more research, more advice, and a more persuasively text is required here. The title is inviting, but the main course disappoints.

A zero-sum situation is how most people approach other peoples' success as. That is, the size of the pie is fixed. If he succeeds, then it means, ipso facto, that I do not. After all, there is room for only one "manager", or "director", or even "CEO", isn't there? How many people know the "next most important person after the CEO" at a company? Or how many people know that you could have been the manager instead of the other person? And therefore got that double-wide cubicle, or that office, instead of the cubicle you are forced to dwell in currently? On the other hand, and there is always another hand, isn't there? On the other hand, people succeed as a team. We fail as individuals, but we succeed as teams. Microsoft Bob is widely regarded as a failure. The Yugo is regarded as the worst car of all time by many (1985 Yugo GV - The 50 Worst Cars of All Time - TIME, Wikipedia). How many people are there that go about putting their stint at these products as a highlight of their resume? Not many you would suppose. "The product I worked on was a pile of dog-crap, but I, and I alone, was the shining star there." That wouldn't really work well, would it? The bottom line is that success is a team effort. So remember, success has a hundred fathers, failure is an orphan with a hundred siblings.

© 2010, Abhinav Agarwal. All rights reserved.