Envy is a universal emotion. Aristotle described it as the pain one experiences from the fortune of others similarly situated (a neighbor, colleague, friend, or family member). An even darker side of envy takes joy in seeing others endure hardship, privately cheering their destruction. As ubiquitous as envy is and despite the ramifications that it can have on relationship dynamics, there are relatively few studies about it. The lack of scholarship may be because, unlike other emotions we experience, people do not generally talk about their envy of others. To speak freely about it would be discomforting and, ironically, enhance one’s feelings of inferiority—which engendered that envy at the outset. Thinking about it in the context of how Aristotle explained it is unpleasant; thus, it remains unspoken (but not unfelt). In short, there is shame in hating the other for achieving the thing we feel connected to and love.
In his book, Envy: A Theory of Social Behaviour, Helmut Schoeck references William L. Davidson, Professor of Logic at the University of Aberdeen, who calls envy “an emotion that is essentially both selfish and malevolent. It is aimed at persons, and implies dislike of one who possesses what the envious man himself covets or desires, and a wish to harm him . . . there is in it also a consciousness of inferiority to the person envied, and a chafing under this consciousness.” Schoeck argues that envy is an important consideration when examining the “justice and fairness” of supposed solutions that are offered. The envy coworkers have for one another, for instance, is not something that a manager can readily dismiss or not account for when determining measures that center around other “taboo” subjects, such as wage distribution. And this is true even if the manager is personally resistant and unaffected by envy in this circumstance. At the same time, Schoeck laments in the realization that there is no eliminating it:
Not dissimilar to medicine that can cure or help alleviate a range of diseases and ailments, envy can have a good effect in measured proportions. It occurs when envious persons conclude “the futility of brooding on invidious comparison” and are instead inspired to “outdo the others by his [emphasis added] achievements.” A civilization progresses, as Schoeck argues, not in fruitless efforts to create absolute equals but in driving persons to become “the better rider, fisherman, hunter, fighter, lover, or writer.”
Knowing this, what can the court manager do with this information characterizing the raw emotion that subtly desires the curbing and elimination of others’ success? How do we avoid or at least differentiate between the people who would delight in their colleagues’ harm? Conversely, how does the aspiring manager prevent herself from being the one who is resentful at the perceived success of those she believes are her equal? How can she become Schoeck’s post-envious woman to simply work to be a better version herself?
Whenever I had a tough day at the courthouse and could spare the time, I would make a stop at a small 9/11 memorial just off my commute—a small, oval park setting situated with benches around a 35-foot-high tower. The structure combines steel retrieved from the North Tower of World Trade Center and bells from a missionary. On both ends surrounding the tower the names of all the victims are inscribed alphabetically in a cast bronze plaque affixed to a large wall made of keystone block. Though it’s a place where one is reminded of so much loss, it can paradoxically bring some peace. While at work that day I’d learned that a person I considered a friend and mentor was going behind my back and intentionally trying to damage my reputation with my colleagues. Today of all days I thought a brief retreat to this space would help quiet my mind and bring me some perspective.
I didn’t see Toni approach as my back was facing the area where she parked her car. “Here, I brought you some salted caramel tea to help you lick your wounds,” Toni said as she approached and offered me the cup from behind the park bench. She swung around and sat next to me taking a deep breath before taking a sip of the tea and gazing up at the tower. “You get the full-bodied notes of caramel and those malty undertones. No sugar needed. Just a dash of milk.”
I took a sip and agreed, “Thank you Toni—it’s good. Sweet and salty.”
“Just like life,” she concluded.
I smiled and shook my head staring at the inscriptions of victim names. “Thanks for coming Toni, but you didn’t need to.”
“When the folks you care about are having sweet days, showing up is optional, but the salty days are obligatory. So, I’m here.”
We sat there for several minutes taking in the aroma and taste of the blend when Toni broke the silence and asked, “Did I ever tell you about my anthropologist friend?”
“Anthropologist? No—I don’t think so,” I replied.
“Many years ago, long before you would remember, I was venting to her about being the source of gossip after working very hard to purchase a second rental property. I learned that hurtful comments were being made about me—some of which were stated by people I considered friends and persons I trusted.”
“What were they saying?” I asked.
“Petty things that frankly weren’t true. One person was the sort of friend I considered more of a sister said that I was only able to save the money to invest because I subsisted off pasta and potatoes every day.”
“So, no surf and turf at Toni’s for dinner?” I joked.
“Exactly. The truth of course being that dinner in my home was always soup to nuts. And she knew that better than anyone. I eventually came to the realization that the comments were excuses to make herself feel better. But those specifics are not important. It was the question my anthropologist friend asked that helped me focus my energy. So, I’ll ask you, ‘Do you know what baboons think about all day?’”
Puzzled by where the conversation was headed, I replied, “I have no clue. Food?”
“Other baboons,” she responded sharply.
“That’s too funny.”
“Indeed, it is. Humans are people. And people are funny too and not always in a humorous sort of way. Things never work out for baboons because they are always thinking about how things work out for other baboons. Do you understand the anthropologist’s point?”
“I do. And it’s great.”
“Over the course of your life and career some folks will purposely seek your misfortune by gossiping about you, withholding information from you, or intentionally misdirecting you because of envy. Best-case scenario is that they sit on the sidelines hoping you falter. Sadly, some of these folks will be your colleagues, friends, and even family. It’s a hard lesson, but a good one to learn—and the sooner, the better.”
“This one stings a bit.”
“Yes—the pain of naïveté sometimes smarts, but then you get smarter.”
“The thing is it’s much easier to believe the bad things people say about us than the good stuff. And that’s another reason why it’s important to be mindful of the company you keep whenever there’s a choice.”
“And when there isn’t a choice or when those supposed friends or trusted colleagues betray you?” I asked.
“You will not be able to control every circumstance. Sometimes the expense of being successful is the friends that are lost for no other reason than what has been achieved. If they cross you because of their inferiority complex, then they were never really your friend. Some folks are simply in your life at a particular time for a particular purpose. You’re human too—so be mindful that from time to time your envy will also creep in. But you can keep those feelings at bay by focusing on your goals and whenever feasible, helping others accomplish theirs.”
“You’ve given me a lot to unpack here, Toni.”
“I have. But what you’ve got going on right now is nothing new and it’s certainly not fatal. You’ll survive. The key lessons: One, always be in the business of helping others. Two, pursue your future privately and with only those who want you to succeed. That circle as you are learning is very small. Count your blessings if it exists at all.”
“I thank the universe for you every day.”
“That’s kind of you to say—I thank her for you as well. And the last lesson—that thing about baboons?” she asked pointing to me.
“Yes—don’t be one.”
In All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy writes:
Toni would say that if envy does not ignite a desire to be active or otherwise improve one’s own position in life, then a person has abandoned herself. This in turn creates an undesirable set of circumstances for her that often extends outward to other people with whom she is acquainted. She pays less attention to herself and more to what others are doing without appreciating the years of labor that were necessarily required to attain the accolades she covets in others. She remains idle, which breeds contempt for those others who are active. For cowards then there’s nothing to others’ achievements because nothing is ever done, only abandoned.
Envy is ever-present, though it seldom announces itself. For those with the courage to reject the troop of baboons, two realities often emerge: First, relationships will be lost. Success in any realm of life often entails a significant amount of focus that requires understanding and loyalty as time commitments shift. Not all relationships have the foundational integrity to endure these efforts. Other relationships will dissolve on account of the success that is resented. Second, the critics will be countless. The world is filled with people who discourage others, but it is important, as Mark Twain states, to avoid “small people . . . who try to belittle your ambitions” and to seek out “the really great . . . who make you feel that you, too, can become great.”
Toni was an exceptional character because she was genuinely happy for others when they were successful. An important distinction was that she was delighted even in those instances when they were more successful than her. Rather than becoming fixated on the personal matters of others, she sought to get better by maintaining constructive relationships and was cognizant of the entrepreneur Jim Rohn’s mindset formula: You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with. This requires work on developing a healthy self-image so that she can learn from the successes of others as opposed to secretly hoping they falter. The company one chooses to keep must therefore be regularly calibrated. In other instances where the choices are limited, such as work environments, convey respect for everyone and avoid partaking in idle chatter. Instead of wasting time thinking about the personal affairs of others, devote more energy to considering ideas. And in circumstances where the manager finds that she is the one who’s being quietly rooted against, remain above the fray, and push forward to continue to get better. The silence can become deafening otherwise.
And those are just some of my musings on management.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Giuseppe M. Fazari has been musing about management concepts and practices throughout his career as an administrator, consultant, and academic. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.