How to Deal with Workplace Jealousy

Vanessa Raymond Fact Checked
Woman in green office on telephone
© Aila Images / Stocksy United

Say your coworker just received the promotion you were hoping for (and are better qualified for). You feel a tide of envy rising in you but surprise and embarrassment, too, because you consider your coworker not just a colleague but a friend.

People have a natural tendency to compare ourselves to others, especially if it is someone—like a coworker—who seems similar to you.

"By comparing yourself to others, you have a benchmark. It’s a part of being a social animal,” says Stephen Lee, a Ph.D. student at the Michael G. Foster School of Business at the University of Washington who studies how employees interact with each other at work. 

Even if you are consciously aware of feelings of envy or jealousy, the actual reason may be buried in your unconscious and disguised by rationalizations. But left unexamined, envy and jealousy can work against you by distracting you from your own performance.

You won’t be able to suppress envy and jealousy—they are feelings, after all—but you can make good choices in how to manage them.

Understand the difference between jealousy and envy

So what are envy and jealousy, exactly, and what’s the difference between them?

“Envy occurs when we wish we had something that someone else has, like skills, connections or other resources,” says Michael D. Johnson, Ph.D., The Boeing Company Professor of Business Management at the Michael G. Foster School of Business.

“Jealousy, on the other hand, occurs when we are afraid of losing an important relationship, such as when a supervisor prefers a new coworker over you and you ‘lose’ your special relationship,” says Johnson. 

Jealousy also involves insecurity, because you only feel threatened about losing a relationship if you don’t feel secure in that relationship. 

This doesn’t mean that jealousy only happens to insecure people, though; the insecurity is about the relationship, says Johnson.

Analyze your feelings without ruminating on them

If you understand why you feel envious or jealous, it can decrease your stress and also help you choose how to respond.

But as you work to identify and understand your feelings, make sure that you are truly trying to make sense of the situation, and not just dwelling on your negative feelings about it.

The worst thing to do is to replay the circumstances of a negative experience over and over in your mind. That’s called rumination, and it’s not healthy.

“Rumination leads to all sorts of unhealthy outcomes, like depression, cardiovascular problems and aggressive behavior,” says Johnson. “If you aren’t making progress in understanding why something happened and putting those experiences behind you, that’s when you’re just ruminating.”

Change your response to feelings of jealousy and envy 

There is a lot of evidence that suggests you are capable of changing your response to your own feelings.

“Research on emotion regulation has found that you can change your feelings in two ways: before the experience that gives rise to the feeling, and after the experience,” says Johnson.

  • Before it happens. If you’re astute enough to anticipate that a situation is likely to create negative feelings, you can prepare to use a strategy known as cognitive reappraisal during it. Cognitive reappraisal is a conscious decision to reframe an event in order to change your emotional response to it.

    You pay attention to the emotional situation and your response (the appraisal) and you reevaluate the situation in a more neutral or positive way (the reappraisal).

    “Reappraisal is simply deciding that we won’t be affected by the negative situation; people can actually do this pretty well,” says Johnson.

  • After it happens. If you were blindsided by the circumstances that induced these feelings, you can still apply cognitive reappraisal techniques afterwards. In this case, you recognize the negative pattern your thoughts have fallen into and change that pattern into one that is more productive.

    For example, when it comes to that co-worker’s promotion, instead of dwelling on what you'll miss out on by not getting it, think instead of what you might have been spared: things like longer hours, more presentations, more travel and more stress.

  • Meditate on it. “Some interesting recent research on mindfulness has found that regular meditation can help you to modulate your behavioral reactions to negative feelings,” says Johnson.

    This is because mindfulness meditation makes you more aware of your feelings and, once you can name the feeling and its cause, then you can better choose how to respond, he says.

  • Punching a wall instead? You might wonder if you couldn’t just channel your strong feelings into some drywall instead.

    “In fact, taking aggressions out on something else makes things worse, and doesn’t work for controlling your own behavior, says Johnson.

Know that envy can either hurt or motivate you

Psychologists now distinguish between two forms of envy: benign envy and malicious envy. Both kinds of envy arise from a social comparison—the target of your envy has something you want—but lead to different kinds of behavior.

Malicious envy is when people want to somehow bring down the target of their envy.

“If you feel threatened by the person who is doing better than you, then that can jeopardize your relationships if you deal with your envy by trying to sabotage or undermine your coworker to bring them back down,” says Lee.

For example, benign envy of a coworker who receives a promotion or plum assignment may motivate you to work harder and improve your own skills.

“You can remind yourself that just because this person did better, it doesn’t mean that you’re not smart enough. It means that you can learn a few things from them to improve yourself,” says Lee.

Take responsibility for managing your own emotions

When feelings of envy or jealousy arise in the workplace, it’s best to see them as inevitable, and work to make the right choices in managing them instead of trying to suppress them or pretend that you don’t have them in the first place.

You career will be filled with milestone events—don’t let mismanagement of your own jealousy or envy become one of them.