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How to Deal with Jealousy at Work

The text Jealousy at Work and the outlines of one yellow figure separated from four white figures.

Jealousy. It’s an extremely unpleasant emotion that everyone experiences at different points in our lives. If we’re able to recognize when we’re acting from jealousy, we often feel ashamed and chide ourselves for “not being more adult about the whole thing,” whatever that might mean to us.

Meanwhile, jealousy is a hard feeling to shake because it arises from a sense that someone else received what we believe should be ours. Operating at an irrational and often unconscious level, this emotion can lead us into a lot of behaviors that can work against our own interests.

So what exactly is jealousy and why is it such a problem in the workplace?

To begin, let’s be clear that like all emotions, jealousy itself is neither good nor bad. It’s there for a reason. Even animals experience it. Anyone guilty of petting the friendly beagle who lives next door knows full well the consequence of coming home to her or his own pets. “How could you?” Riblet and Shoestring seem to ask through baleful eyes as they slink away from us.

“How could you?” is essentially the reaction we feel when we experience jealousy. The emotion is rooted in an internal sense of injustice. It triggers us that we’re needing something which we’re not receiving, but believe we should be. Throughout the ages, this has prompted humans to identify and advocate for our needs of shelter, love and other requirements for survival.

Where Does Jealousy Come From?

Our history with the green-eyed monster significantly predates our work life. Sibling rivalry, competing with one another for a parent’s attention, and jockeying for a treasured spot on grandpa’s lap are typical experiences in early child development.

As small children, we depended on the adults around us to survive. Their love and nurturance not only felt good, but also gave us the building blocks for our emotional and intellectual development. When parents’ attention was divided or even diverted to another person whose need was greater, as older siblings and those raised with a disabled family member can attest, we experienced a very instinctive fear of loss.

As we grew older and developed the portions of our brain that carry out rational and more abstract functions, most of us figured out that a loved one’s divided attentions didn’t mean that we were unloved. However, we don’t always respond to situations through a rational lens. What’s more, people do at times favor someone else over us. Our feelings of jealousy are normal and natural as we move through the cycle of human experiences that include breakups, dissolutions of friendships, and all manner of people receiving favored treatment over us.

This is to say that jealousy is a given in certain situations, and our professional settings provide these certain situations aplenty. There’s no shame in feeling it. The most important decision we can make as professionals is to maintain the focus on centering in our own strength and making choices that benefit our careers over the long term.

Jealousy in the Workplace

Most of our workplaces come complete with merit increases, bonuses, contests, promotions, special funding and other forms of recognition. Sometimes, another person gets something because they have a friendship with an authority figure. By design of the competitive environments that most organizations foster, workplaces are natural seedbeds for jealousy. After all, we work for money, which allows us to support ourselves. More recognition usually means more money or perhaps something else that we value equally.

The desire to receive recognition that we believe we’ve earned is real. When we aren’t recognized but someone else is, we feel jealous.

Feeling jealousy at work isn’t inherently destructive. The problem is what so many of us choose to do with it, which often results in bad career decisions.

Backbiting and gossip are particularly destructive for our professional credibility. Things like “Puh-lease! HE’S the person they chose to be director?” “Oh, of course they got their budget approved. They’re the chosen ones,” are the types of things said in jealousy. People sometimes engage in attempts to sabotage the one who’s received recognition. Or they complain. Or, they let their own work suffer as a demonstration of their displeasure.

It’s easy to see how destructive this is for our workplace and for ourselves. The biggest casualty in these instances is our professional reputation. Rarely does behaving in these manners lead to a positive outcome for us.

How to Overcome Jealousy: 5 Steps

Step 1: Recognize Jealousy

Sometimes it’s clear to us that we’re feeling jealous. Other times, jealousy is wrapped up with other feelings and behaviors, and we find ourselves resenting or behaving bitterly toward a person or group.

The best way to recognize jealousy is to identify the amount of time invested in what someone else in the workplace is doing when such work doesn’t impact us directly.

We can often ‘spot’ our jealousy by reactions we encounter when we see recognition given to others. Don’t pretend it’s not there if it is. If you repress it, you’ll express it. Sarcasm is a classic behavior. If we look deeper at the times we use it, we can often pinpoint feelings of jealousy that are beneath the bite of our wit.

Obviously, if there’s a person or entity whose work production interferes with your own, that’s a legitimate concern. If this is the case and you’re frustrated and needing to hold what we used to call a ‘caring confrontation’ in my previous workplace, confront away. Chances are that this isn’t about jealousy and is about something else.

Step 2: Own Your Jealousy

This doesn’t require a workplace group confessional so much as it is an admission to ourselves of what we’re experiencing. Some self-talk here is really helpful: “Okay, I’m jealous. This is a legit emotional response because we both worked hard, yet she’s the one who got the promotion over me.”

Once again, if the point of ownership comes along when already engaged in workplace drama over the matter, be clear on the role that your jealousy is playing in the drama. A strong possibility is that the star of the drama is your jealousy.

Step 3: Examine the Jealousy

What’s lacking for you that you’re not receiving? Is the other person’s recognition or accolade really a problem for you, or are you making it so because you’re needing some missing part of yourself to get acknowledged?

This level of self-reflection is hard work; but it’s work that will set you free. By acknowledging that the experience of jealousy stems from your own yearning and by being clear what that yearning is, you’ll be able to map a path forward that’s more likely to meet your needs.

Step 4: Determine Your Actions

What do you need to do so that you can fulfill this part of you? Be detailed here. This is often a point where the need for change is identified. Is it a:

  • Shift in your professional focus into areas that play more to your strengths?
  • New job search?
  • Healthy distance from coworkers who engage you in group think and a negative focus?
  • An expanded personal life or some healing work to do at home?

By becoming clear and owning your responsibility as the change agent, you’ll move yourself away from old jealousy patterns that frustrate your career ambitions.

Step 5: Honor Yourself and the Other Person in the Process

Looking at someone else as the measuring stick of your professional worth is a fruitless endeavor. It’s absolutely a wise decision to seek out mentors and to ask your leader for what you need to develop more fully as a professional.

At the end of the day though, the task for each of us is to understand our own strengths, our unique thing we do that’s not like anyone else. By becoming clear on this and creating the circumstances which allow our natural talents to shine, we’re more likely to create career opportunities that fulfill us and where we receive more of the professional affirmation we seek. This only happens when the measuring stick for who we are as professionals comes from an internal awareness of our strengths, passions and drives.

Be well with all of this. There’s no value gained in feeling ashamed for old jealousies or the things you did as a result. Learn from these as you go forward as the most fully realized professional you can be.

Dr. Stacee Reicherzer serves as clinical faculty in the SNHU Online Master’s in Counseling program. “Dr. Stacee,” as she is professionally known, is a licensed professional counselor-supervisor from Texas who now resides on the South Coast of Massachusetts. She writes and presents extensively on the topics of diversity, personal empowerment and fabulousness, and creativity as a source of healing. To see more of her work, visit her website at www.drstacee.com.

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