How envied employees can avoid being squashed down by the green-eyed boss.
Despite distinct advantages, supervisors are not immune to feeling downward envy — that is, envy of the employees they oversee. This is especially true when a subordinate has strong social skills, demonstrates leadership potential, develops close relationships with senior management or is seen as a source of innovative ideas.
Little has been studied about this phenomenon, and specifically how that emotion is expressed in the workplace. Our research addresses this gap. We conducted two studies of supervisor-subordinate relationships involving employees of two companies in China; one is a management consulting company and the other a natural gas company.
We found that when supervisory leaders experienced downward envy toward subordinates they saw as competent but cold — that is, capable workers with a more aloof attitude — the leaders were more likely to use abusive supervision to try and close the gap between themselves and their subordinates. But if a supervisor envied an employee they considered warm and competent, that supervisor was far more likely to reduce the perceived gap by raising themselves up, not by pushing that employee down.
These findings have several practical implications for organizations.
Evidence suggests that people who feel envied often hide their positive qualities and avoid appearing too successful. But our research indicates that employees shouldn’t hide their talents: Rather, taking a warmer, more cooperative approach may have a far more protective effect.
Second, they can help business leaders understand that while downward envy can be linked with abusive supervision, those negative responses are not an inevitable outcome.
For leaders, putting assumptions about envied others to the test can transform a natural emotion from a source of injury to a source of personal improvement, and ultimately, organizational success.
(Michelle K. Duffy is the Vernon Heath chair at the Carlson School of Management. Bennett J. Tepper is the Abramowitz Memorial professor and chair of the department of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.)