Insights at UBC Sauder

Green with envy: What happens when supervisors become envious of their employees

Posted 2018-06-07

According to new research from the UBC Sauder School of Business, despite their senior position, many supervisors become envious of their employees — and that envy can harm workers and damage the company.

“Say an employee has greater leadership potential, a really close relationship with the big bosses, or has a strong friendship network in the organization,” says UBC Sauder assistant professor and lead author, Lingtao Yu. “Any one of those examples can lead to supervisors envying their employees.”

The study, which looked at the effects of downward envy on supervisory behaviour, examined two corporations in China for six months and asked both supervisors and their employees to fill out surveys about how they felt towards employees, themselves, and their behavioural reactions.

The researchers found that downward envy exists, but the way the envy manifests itself can vary based on supervisors’ perception of the envied employee. If a supervisor perceives their envied employee to be competent but cold — for example, they’re calculatedly climbing the ladder — the supervisor is more likely to create distance by acting abusively, aiming to reduce the person’s standing. But if the employee they envy is competent and warm, supervisors are more inclined to improve themselves.

“In this case, they still feel threatened, but when they think about how to deal with that threat, they figure, ‘Maybe I’ll improve my own performance and try to catch up with the employee,’” says Yu.

Many studies have looked at peer-to-peer envy in the workplace, or envy that happens from the bottom up — but this study, which was recently published in the Academy of Management Journal, is the first to empirically show the existence of downward envy, and that some envy can lead to positive outcomes.

While the research focuses on companies in China, Yu says the results apply across cultures and workplaces — and that both employers and employees can learn from the results.

“Senior management often treats envy as a toxic emotion in the workplace, but we found it really depends on the way a supervisor perceives their employees — and it can have positive outcomes,” says Yu, who also plans to study the primary sources of downward envy. Employees, he adds, should remember that supervisor envy isn’t their fault — but they can mitigate its effects.

“The way you behave in the workplace will shape your supervisor’s perception about whether you’re cold or warm,” he says. “So, we suggest employees don’t act cold in the workplace, because being nice is actually a way to protect yourself.”

The study, titled Consequences of Downward Envy: A Model of Self-Esteem Threat, Abusive Supervision, and Supervisory Leader Self-Improvement, was co-authored by Michelle Duffy of the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota and Bennett J. Tepper of Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University.