Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Five Ways to Battle the Little Green Monster

What kind of car do you drive? What does your lawn look like? How much did that suit cost you?

If you're a typical American, at least one of these things brings out your competitive side. Go on, admit it. Your car was chosen because it was something you could show off to your friends. Your lawn could qualify for the PGA, and any weed that dares show up is considered an enemy of the state. And that new suit? Well, you don't like to brag...but it did cost you several months pay.

OK, feel better? Now we all know that you're a top dog, that your status in your circle is assured.

Now, let's talk about work.

Gaining status on the job is often very tough, and it causes a lot of anxiety. Alliances shift -- one day you're in box seats, the next you're sitting in the nosebleed section. One day your star is on the rise, and then -- boom! You've been shoved down the corporate ladder. Or, it seems you never even get a place at the table, no matter how hard you work.

It's no wonder that envy on the job is so destructive. Even if you are the most mild-mannered employee, you may find you are jealous of a co-worker's success and resent the positive events that flow toward someone else.

If you continue down this road, the results are pretty predictable: Your self esteem will drop, you will begin to be less productive and creative, your relationships at work will suffer and your poor self-image may begin to seep into other areas of your life, including personal relationships.

In my previous post about perfectionism, I wrote about the constant "ranking" of our every move that can bring about real problems for those who believe they never measure up. I think this is also true of those who gain their self esteem solely from their job. Bosses like to post rankings of sales, safety records, on-time performance, etc., so the person who already feels jealous of others can have those feelings magnified when they fall behind others -- and are constantly reminded about it.

If you find yourself secretly wishing that a colleague at work might get sideswiped by a bus (not killed....just sort of out of commission for a while), if you find yourself resentful of a co-worker's successes or if feelings of envy are consuming much of your waking hours, then it's time to make some changes.

Why? Because you're much more than your job. No job is worth making you believe that you're "less" than someone else. No job title or paycheck is important enough to crowd out the other good things in your life.

I don't promise this will be easy. It's something you may have to work at every day -- or every hour -- or even every 10 minutes. It's going to be tough because you're going to change the way you look at life, at your job and at your place in this world. But I do promise that it will be worth it. How do I know? Because I've been through status envy myself, and I know how painful and destructive it is. And I also know how good it feels to let it go.

So, let's get started:

1. Make a list of things you enjoy. If it's gardening, riding your bike, playing music, whatever -- the point is to find something that you like doing and then focus your energies on finding other people who feel the same. By joining a gardening club, for example, your self esteem can be boosted when you become a key player in raising money for that group. By experiencing success in something that matters to you, your self esteem will grow in all areas of your life, including at work.

2. Sometimes bigger is not always better. Americans like big. They like big cars and big burgers and big titles. But it's OK if you don't thrive in a big group. It's perfectly fine if you would rather swim in a small pond. Maybe you got a job with a Fortune 100 right out of school, but now find you are consumed with doubts and depression. You might find that working in a smaller organization doesn't give you the big money and prestige, but you'll be a whole lot happier in a smaller group where your status isn't in the sub-zero range.

3. Let go of the shame. I think one of the worst parts of envy is the shame that goes along with it. We know we shouldn't feel the way we do, but that doesn't stop the unkind thoughts about colleagues creeping up on us at 3 a.m. The next time you feel ashamed of the way you feel, stop and say: "OK, I know I'm envious that Joe makes more money than me. That's a concern, but not something I'm going to focus on." Instead, you use it as motivation to make a new client really happy so you can make the boss really happy -- and that could net you a raise. See how you re-frame the situation so that you let go of the shame and instead use it as motivation?

4. Be careful what you wish for. Recently, I was in a very ritzy neighborhood, and the person showing me around would point to a house and say: "The owner killed herself. So did her son." Then, he'd point to another house: "That man died alone. Kids have been fighting over the estate for 10 years." Talk about sad! When your self esteem is being battered, consider what it is you're really after. More money? A different job title? A top project? Then ask yourself: Do you want those things to make you happy, or just to be able to compare yourself to someone else? Will those "things" really make you happy for the long term?

5. This, too, shall pass. After I was on the "Today" show last year, I sat next to a woman on the plane who had just spent a week with a man she had met through an online dating service. I told her about my "Today" show appearance, and how I was hoping that it helped my book sales. The woman, about 60-years-old, was a successful commodities broker. She smiled at me and said: "As you get older, you'll find that stuff doesn't matter. What you want is to find someone to share your life with." She went on to tell me that she'd been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and was hoping to find a man to share a loving relationship with for the time she had left. In an ironic twist, she discovered the man she had just spent the week with also had been diagnosed with Parkinson's.
This woman has been in my thoughts ever since. I've talked to many older workers since then, and they all have the same attitude: Envy and job status take up too much time and energy that they'd rather spend doing something else.

I try to keep that in mind every time I feel that little green monster try to sit on my shoulder. Next time he shows up, he's going in the shredder.

Do you ever find yourself feeling envious of more successful colleagues? What do you do about it?

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Anonymous said...

This is a great post, Anita! Envy is such a joy killer --- both on the job and off. As I see it (even if it’s a bit oversimplified), it’s a fundamental lack of happiness with one’s own life that drives it. So, in addition to your great suggestions, I recommend that people identify happiness practices and make them a habit. A good source of this information is Sonja Lyubomirsky's "The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want,' which I reference in a post at my place :-)

Anita said...

I think you're right -- finding and keeping happiness in your life sometimes does take work! But it's a job that's SO worth it. For those interested in more on this subject, check out the book and Walter's website at
Thanks for adding to our conversation!

Anonymous said...

Scary post to reflect on ... I don't have work-envy yet, but I do have age-envy. I find that envy does help as a motiviation & causing ambition; which might be the push we need to archieve or do better.

Getting rid of envy is not easy or even possible, but can we redirect it & make it work for us? Like pushing us to request project we dream to do Or is that a bad idea?

Anita said...

No, that's not a bad idea...that's a great idea! The key is knowing that envy is a negative, but motivation is a positive. So, if you turn your back on the jealousy you feel towards someone at work, and instead channel that emotion into wanting to achieve something for yourself, then I think that's a move in the right direction.
As Walter mentioned, it's best to seek balance in your life. If you put all your emotional "eggs" into one basket, then your jealousy can overwhelm you.
Thanks for making such good points.

Anonymous said...

I think the best way to battle jealousy is to know that you are doing the best you can. Be at peace with that and it doesn't really matter what others are doing. I like to remind myself that I never know the whole story about someone else. On the outside they may be more successful but who knows what their personal life looks like!

Anita said...

Very true! I think we've all known those "success" stories (Britney Spears? Lindsey Lohan?), whose careers seem to wonderful, but it turns out the private lives are very sad and unhappy. You're right...we need to remember to count the blessings we do have.
Thanks for reminding us.

Anonymous said...

This quote struck me:

"I've talked to many older workers since then, and they all have the same attitude: Envy and job status take up too much time and energy that they'd rather spend doing something else."

Yeah, you can say things like that when you have achieved what you wanted at life. Such bullshit.