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.
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More articles on Workplace Politics:
- On the Appearance of Impropriety
- Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean,
what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
- Inappropriate Levels of Regard
- The regard we have for others as people is sometimes influenced by the regard we have for the work they
do. Confusing the two is a dangerous error.
- Getting Into the Conversation
- In well-facilitated meetings, facilitators work hard to ensure that all participants have opportunities
to contribute. The story is rather different for many meetings, where getting into the conversation
can be challenging for some.
- Impasses in Group Decision Making: II
- When groups can't reach agreement on all aspects of an issue, the tactics of some members can actually
exacerbate disagreement. Here's Part II of an exploration of impasses, emphasizing two of the more toxic
- Suppressing Dissent: II
- Disagreeing with the majority in a meeting, or in some cases, merely disagreeing with the Leader, can
lead to isolation and other personal difficulties. Here is Part II of a set of tactics used by Leaders
who choose not to tolerate differences of opinion, emphasizing the meeting context.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 13: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: I
- To take the risks that learning and practicing new ways require, we all need a sense that trial-and-error approaches are safe. Organizations seeking to improve processes would do well to begin by assessing their level of psychological safety. Available here and by RSS on December 13.
- And on December 20: Contrary Indicators of Psychological Safety: II
- When we begin using new tools or processes, we make mistakes. Practice is the cure, but practice can be scary if the grace period for early mistakes is too short. For teams adopting new methods, psychological safety is a fundamental component of success. Available here and by RSS on December 20.
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