To envy someone is to feel unhappy about the success, assets, or capabilities of another. Accompanying this, often, is a feeling that one is inferior to the envied person, though the feeling of inferiority is likely to remain unexpressed, masked, private, and, perhaps, a secret from oneself. Even so, feelings of envy are familiar to many. Occasionally, these feelings serve us, in a way, by providing energy to pursue our own improvement. That's some of the good news.
And envy brings with it a degree of danger. It can disrupt relationships at the level of individuals, and create enmities on a societal scale — between economic classes, ethnic groups, or demographic cohorts. These feelings are also familiar to many. Feelings of envy can fuel toxic conflict and organized crime. Cynical politicians can use envy to foment wars. That's some of the bad news.
Narcissistic envy is another matter altogether. It's both more intense than the envy most of us recognize, and more continuously consistent — even relentless. And it drives other narcissistic behaviors.
As a reminder, the behaviors and attitudes typically regarded as narcissistic are these:
- Expresses exaggerated self-importance
- Preoccupied with superiority fantasies
- Believes that he or she is special and that only special people or institutions can fully appreciate that specialness
- Constantly demands attention and admiration from others
- Expects and demands favorable treatment
- Exploits others for personal ends
- Ruthless disregard for the feelings of others
- Envies others or believes that others envy him or her
- Is off-the-charts arrogant
Let's now have a closer look at the eighth item above: envy of others or the belief that others envy oneself. For convenience in this series, I've been referring to the person exhibiting narcissistic behaviors and attitudes as either Nick or Nora. This time, it's Nick.
- For example, a week after Nick moved into a three-window (but noncorner) office, he heard that an even higher-status corner office was opening up due to the retirement of another Director. Knowing that he wouldn't be eligible, having just moved into his three-window office, Nick lobbied for two junior people to share the corner office instead of letting it be assigned to Jason. If Jason had moved into the corner office, Nick would have experienced extreme office envy, even though Jason certainly merited the corner office, and even though Jason was quite happy where he was.
- Envy afflicts most of us only when the person envied truly has something we desire, and maybe not even then. Our connection with reality therefore limits our susceptibility to envy. But Nick is less well connected to reality. He certainly envies those who do have things he wants, but he also envies people whom he merely believes have things he wants, even when they don't — or when he believes they might soon gain something he wants. The problem for Nick is that when someone has something he wants, Nick feels that his view of his own superiority and specialness is under attack. For Nick, the threat is almost existential. He cannot permit anyone to have anything he wants, because that threatens his view of his own position of superiority and privilege. And so, his actions in these situations usually come in the form of attacks, which he views not as aggressive, but defensive.
- Nick's acknowledging Envy afflicts most of us
only when the person envied
truly has something we desire,
and maybe not even thenthis pattern of aggression would present difficulties for maintaining his belief in his superiority unless he believed that his feelings of envy were commonplace. And so, he adopts the position that everyone envies others intensely, but only he has the strength and skill and courage to do anything about it. Everyone else is a wimp.
- Organizational risks
- Broken relationships and toxic conflict tend to accompany Nick wherever he goes. These are high costs for organizations that depend on effective teamwork. As Nick rises in the organization, though, the costs tend to escalate, because the toxicity of the conflict moves from the individual scale to the scale of the units Nick leads. What he envies changes from personal attributes to organizational attributes — number of employees, size of budget, total value of acquisitions, and so on. One department might find itself at war with another, one division with another, or one entire corporation with another. Units that had long histories of effective collaboration suddenly cannot cooperate. Reorganizations and terminations seem to be the only paths to resolution, and they do help, temporarily, but if they leave Nick in place, the pattern repeats.
- Coping tactics
- Envy is an emotion that's difficult to detect in others. Instead of trying to recognize narcissistic envy, be attentive to its consequences. The presence of toxic conflict is one possible indicator.
- As Nick's supervisor, toxic conflict within your organization might not appear to center around Nick, even though Nick's intense feelings of envy might be among the causes. Objections to your decisions might seem to be based on conventional values, but look behind the professed arguments to see if envy might be involved. For example, to test objections based on fairness, seek opinions about solutions that are unfair but which do address feelings of envy. If people find such solutions appealing, fairness might not have been the real objection.
- As Nick's co-worker, be aware that any success you achieve, or any material benefit you gain, increases the probability of Nick attacking you. Attacks might directly target the emblems of status, or they might be indirect — name-calling, character assassination, rumormongering, and so on. Appealing to management for intervention will likely be fruitless, unless management was genuinely unaware of Nick's behavior. Counterattack is an option if you have the stomach for it, and the skill, but remember, Nick is likely very skilled, and has probably chosen the timing and content of his attacks to his own advantage.
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- Patterns of Everyday Conversation
- Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself
to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
- Why Others Do What They Do
- If you're human, you make mistakes. A particularly expensive kind of mistake is guessing incorrectly
why others do what they do. Here are some of the ways we get this wrong.
- Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing
relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to
relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects
of that disregard.
- Stone-Throwers at Meetings: II
- A stone-thrower in a meeting is someone who is determined to halt forward progress. Motives vary, from
embarrassing the chair to holding the meeting hostage in exchange for advancing an agenda. What can
chairs do about stone-throwers?
- I Don't Understand: I
- When someone makes a statement or offers an explanation that's unclear or ambiguous, there are risks
associated with asking for clarification. The risks can seem so terrifying that we decide not to ask.
What keeps us from seeking clarification?
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming February 1: The Big Power of Little Words
- Big, fancy words, like commensurate or obfuscation, tend to be more noticed than the little everyday words, like yet or best. That might be why the little words can be so much more powerful, steering conversations where their users want them to go. Available here and by RSS on February 1.
- And on February 8: Kerfuffles That Seem Like Something More
- Much of what we regard as political conflict is a series of squabbles commonly called kerfuffles. They captivate us while they're underway, but after a month or two they're forgotten. Why do they happen? Why do they persist? Available here and by RSS on February 8.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenZLkFdSHmlHvCaSsuner@ChacbnsTPttsdDaRAswloCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500-1000 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info