Envy at Work - Pros and Cons for the Organization - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #148

Envy at Work – Pros and Cons for the Organization

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


As a team leader, you want your team to work well together and, most importantly, produce results. The last thing you want is their success to be hampered by envy between colleagues, right? Well, according to new research from NUS Business School, some forms of envy may not necessarily be a bad thing, especially when it activates challenge-orientated rather than threat-orientated actions on the part of the envious person. 


In a survey by Staples, Inc. in 2010, three out of four respondents admitted to ‘office-chair envy’ – that is, coveting a co-worker’s office chair. It may sound laughable, but various degrees and forms of envy in the workplace are a reality. Whether it is for the time and attention of senior managers or for preferred job assignments and promotions, co-workers compete with each other all the time.

Though ‘envy’ has been defined in different ways, faculty from NUS Business School propose that envy is primarily characterized by pain at another’s good fortune. This pain activates both threat and challenge-oriented action tendencies, through which envy drives not only negative but also positive behavioural and organizational outcomes.

Reviewing literature on envy in organizational environments, Tai, Narayanan and McAllister highlight that most studies are skewed towards the negative effects of envy. It is true that envy can emerge negatively, such as in the form of prejudice, personal unhappiness, etc. However, envy is an adaptive emotion and can therefore lead to diverse behavioural responses, including some positive ones.

Specifically, envy seems to manifest dual action tendencies: challenge-oriented and threat-oriented. In the case of the former, envious parties respond positively by seeing the ‘challenge’ in a situation and respond by raising themselves to match the level of the envied target. However, the extent to which these patterns of association are observed depends on how the envious parties view three things:

  1. themselves (core self-evaluation);
  2. those they envy (referent cognitions); and
  3. the organization in which they work (perceived organizational support).

For example, favourable core self-evaluations, which can be reflected through high self-esteem, emotional stability, etc., can strengthen challenge-oriented responses to envy and weaken threat-oriented responses. This then increases the likelihood of pro-social behaviours and reduces the likelihood of social undermining.


Managers should focus their attention on creating and maintaining a climate in which the benefits of envy can be realized. By developing a more holistic understanding of workplace envy, you will begin to appreciate that employees who cannot celebrate the accomplishments and qualities of their co-workers will be denied an important source of satisfaction and enrichment; ultimately, this can become a barrier to team-work success.

As such, create conditions for enhanced core self-evaluation and foster an environment where employees see the organization as being supportive. This will help strengthen challenge-orientated responses to envy, as opposed to threat-orientated - the latter being more conducive to position actions.



Envy as Pain: Rethinking the Nature of Envy and its Implications for Employees and Organizations, “Tai, Kenneth”, “Narayanan, Jayanth” and “McAllister, Daniel”, Academy of Management Review, Vol. 37, No.1 (2012), pp. 107–129

Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.



Idea conceived

January 1, 2012

Idea posted

May 2013
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.