The role of envy in social undermining behaviour

Why do people think it’s okay to undermine others? Our mother’s used to tell us “never mind them dear, they’re just jealous of you.”

It seems that there was some truth to that claim. In a recent study, Duffy, Scott, Shaw, Tepper, & Aquino (2012) found that when people feel envious of others, they are better able to morally disengage (i.e., absolve oneself from engaging in moral action), and are therefore more likely to socially undermine them. They also found that identification with coworkers or team members mattered. When you identify highly with your team members, you are less likely to socially undermine them even though you may still feel envious, because you are less able to morally disengage. In contrast, when you become morally disengaged due to envy, you are even more likely to undermine others in your team if there is already a high norm of social undermining in the team.

As always, setting a norm for civility seems like the best way to minimize mistreatment. This research suggests that one way to help establish norms of civility may be to increase team member identification by ensuring all team members feel part of the team. It becomes a lot harder to morally disengage from people with whom you identify.

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