Beware of the enemy within

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 November, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 November, 2007, 12:00am

I have been reading a book called Envy: The Enemy Within by Bob Sorge. He calls envy the most common problem that nobody has (because we don't usually perceive it as our own personal problem). I believe Sorge is on to something here. Sorge defines envy as the internal pain we feel over someone else's success. If so, then I admit I struggle with envy too.

If envy is a common problem among individuals then I believe it is common a problem in organisations. In the workplace, envy primarily plays out in the form of internal competition.

Let me clarify that I am not talking about determination. I firmly encourage people to give their best in whatever task is presented. What I am trying to ask is what fuels this determination?

I believe there is a difference between a person's internal competitiveness and being achievement orientated. You can have two people running a race, one person can choose to look at the time, the other looks at their rivals.

A friend who is an investment banker is up for promotion this year. Investment banks use an anonymous 360-degree feedback mechanism in their appraisal system. That means that employees are appraised by their superiors and their subordinates and that these appraisals are done anonymously.

While going through the promotion process he vented his frustrations about the negative feedback from peers, despite the fact that subordinates and managing directors gave him rave reviews for his leadership and outstanding performance.

While there may have been genuine reasons for negative feedback, based on what I know about this individual, my guess is that envy played some role among those people who appraised him. These peers were afraid that being too positive would take something away from themselves competitively.

Based on Sorge's writings I realise that there are two main roots to envy. Firstly, it is only human nature that we want to feel special in some way. Unfortunately, many of us try to draw that sense of significance by being better than somebody else. Secondly, there are limited resources and opportunities in organisations.

I do not have an answer to remedy the first issue that is appropriate to share here because it delves into something else completely. However, for the second reason, there are things we can do to make our organisations less prone to envy. Be more self aware. Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to. When you accept your strengths and weaknesses for what they are and do not overestimate your abilities it is far easier to allow others to shine and tap into their strengths.

Imagine how much time, energy and money we would save if we could support and celebrate one another in our own teams and organisations rather than compete with one another.

Ji-Ye Hwang is a senior consultant with Hewitt Associates, a global HR consulting and outsourcing company. She is Hewitt Hong Kong's lead consultant for employee engagement. Her views are not necessarily endorsed by Hewitt Associates.