Motivation

Can envy at work be good for you?

October 9, 2012: 10:27 AM ET

Not all jealousy needs to be malicious. In fact, if used appropriately, envy can drive someone to work harder to achieve more impressive goals.

By Ji Hyun Lee

FORTUNE -- It's all too familiar -- that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you discover that the promotion you have been vying for went to a colleague with less experience and fewer years at your company.  You're consumed with envy, and while it would be great to end the day with a "best-man-won" handshake, it rarely goes that way.

Scott Crabtree, 46, founder of Happy Brain Science, recalls the feeling when he was holding down a managerial position at a tech company when his new hire negotiated a salary that was just a few thousand short of his current pay. "I realized he was going to get a salary right out of school that took me decades to reach," he says.

Crabtree, who had schlepped his way through numerous low paying and less glamorous jobs, grew resentful of the subordinate who'd essentially taken a short cut to a very high-paying position. "Feeling bad resulted in me putting in less effort."

MORE: When Salman Khan met Bill Gates

Crabtree grew depressed at the prospect of having to manage someone whom he was so envious of and this ultimately forced him to seek job satisfaction elsewhere. He eventually founded his own business, which he says stemmed from the realization that the constant comparison to others only created unhappiness – and, of course, unhappy employees yield less return on investment for the company.

So if hostility and job dissatisfaction is the end result, does this mean that envy is always a bad thing? Not quite.

According to a 2011 study called "Why Envy Outperforms Admiration," if channeled appropriately, envy can motivate people and boost productivity. Researchers Niels van de Van and Marcel Zeelenberg separate envy into two categories: malicious envy, which seeks to condemn and remove the competition, and benign envy, which is the desire to emulate and admire the competition.

At the heart of envy is comparing oneself against others, and van de Van and Zeelenberg's study of benign envy asserts that comparison can drive someone to work harder to achieve more impressive goals. More

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