We’ve all heard it before –complaints at work or in the classroom that target the “keeners”. These complaints usually focus on how an individual is making the rest of the group ‘look bad’ or how ‘all they ever do is work!’. Sometimes it is hard to contain our bitterness toward high-achievers, especially when our own performance has been found lacking. Although such water cooler griping may be dismissed as blowing off steam or venting our frustrations, how does it affect the lives of those high-achievers targeted by our workplace winging? According to research by Kim and Glomb (2014) the answer appears to be quite a bit, with high-achieving co-workers often being the targets of harmful interpersonal behaviours that result in lower productivity, organizational performance, and general well being. It is clear that this is an important issue for employers and employees; by discouraging our most productive co-workers we encourage sliding standards, and undermine the practice of hiring skilled employers in the first place.
Before you go beating yourself up for off the cuff remarks made to your friends, consider the fact that institutions themselves share a portion of the blame. Employees may participate in harmful behaviour towards their high-performing counterparts in order to remove or reduce the advantages provided to them by employers (Smith & Kim, 2007). Additionally, employers are often responsible for identifying and praising ‘star’ employees, rather than the group as a whole. As a result, other employees may feel that their contribution is undervalued and begin to resent those individuals who are recognized by their organization.
What sort of recognition may inspire envy in others? As you might expect, differences in salary can contribute to co-workers envying one another, but so can perceptions of performance on a given task. It’s not just money that may lead one to talk, but also the perception that your co-worker is simply doing a better job (Glomb & Kim, 2014).By comparing our performance with that of another higher performing coworker we may be breeding envy and harming our professional identity. This envy may influence the victimization of ‘superstars’ in our workplace environment, and thereby reduce the productivity of the entire workplace. Whether or not we participate in such victimization, a hostile work environment that punishes employees who perform well is not someplace any of us want to work.
However, not everyone in the workplace is subject to our bitterness; the majority of our griping will probably be directed toward those members who work in groups outside of our own (Glomb & Kim, 2014). Perhaps it is because we associate the success of our work group with our own, or maybe it is simply the case of proximity and everyday interaction builds relationships that help to reduce workplace victimization. Whatever the case, it is important that employers take the victimization of their highest performing employees seriously in order to reduce the toxic effects of their co-workers’ envy.
But what can employers do to stop the victimization of their employees? First, employers need to stop recognizing the individual over the group. Although it is important to recognize individual achievement, such recognition should be given privately and should never take precedence over the combined efforts of all employees involved in a given project. Secondly, employers need to keep the details of how employees are paid a secret. This means not announcing bonuses or making off the cuff remarks about how an employee’s pay will reflect their efforts. Lastly, employers need to foster the type of team building exercises that help to promote a sense of community in the workplace. Employees that build productive workplace relationships may be less likely to pounce on one another because of a little extra praise from the boss.
It is not just employers that can help to reduce the likelihood of workplace victimization; employees can lend a hand as well. The most important step we can all take to reduce our envy toward high performing employees is perhaps the most straightforward: stop comparing our efforts to others and start focusing on our own improvements. By focusing on our progress and outperforming our previous best, we can feel more satisfied with our work in general and perhaps avoid the envy that causes us to hurt our peers. However, it is not just the gripers that can help reduce workplace envy. The superstars among us can also help by avoiding the spotlight and practicing humility when being recognized (Kim & Glomb, 2014). Although this may at first appear to be victim blaming, acting with humility really should be a personal goal for everyone. After all, nobody likes a whiner, but we’re not too fond of braggarts either.
Kim, E., & Glomb, T. M. (2014). Victimization of high performers: The roles of envy and work
group identification. Journal of Applied Psychology, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0035789
Smith, R. H., & Kim, S. H. (2007). Comprehending envy. Psychological Bulletin, 133(1), 46-64.