Favortism and Jealousy at Work
I’ve been thinking a lot over the recent months about how much healthy, functioning relationships are necessary for research progress. A feeling of fairness and having been heard is a necessary pre-condition for camaraderie, and I am ever more convinced that camaraderie is a necessary pre-condition for a productive work environment. Co-workers need not be friends, but they need to respect each other and feel respected by each other. So in this post, I’m going to talk about some things I’ve observed when that camaraderie is strained by favortism and jealousy. I certainly don’t have all of the answers, so I would definitely appreciate feedback in the comments! Also, I am not a philosopher, nor a psychologist, and I’m sure there are some very beautiful and inscrutable musings by Kant or whomever that make these points better.
What is Jealousy?
I suppose one way to think of jealousy in the traditional sense as being a finite amount of greed. Greed is the feeling that we never have enough of something. Jealousy is the feeling that if we just have what others have, that will be enough. I don’t think you can have jealousy without limited resources; if there is no shortage of money, attention, opportunity, etc., then it is always possible to have what someone else has. Things get more complicated when there is someone who seeks to induce scarcity of resources, but for this post I’m going to focus on the social dynamics of people who generally have good intentions and how the negative feelings surrounding insecurity about finite resources causes friction between well-meaning people.
Jealousy is a complicated emotion. It’s powerful and primal. We are taught that it is personal failing if we cannot rise above it, but I have never seen a powerful emotion willed away. Instead, it’s important to understand where jealousy comes from and what it is so distressing about it. Most people do not want to feel jealousy.
I also want to note that I think we misuse the term “jealousy” to describe another feeling that perhaps needs its own name. I would say that the feeling of simply wanting what others have is what we traditionally think of as jealousy, especially as children. However, there is a more complicated twist on this emotion, where it is not the thing that others have that we want, but the opportunity to have the thing. I suppose I would differentiate between these two emotions by calling the former individual jealousy (i.e., I want what you have) and the latter systemic jealousy (i.e., I want the chance to have what you have). This post will primarily talk about the latter because I think it is more common in adults and in the workplace. When the two forms of jealousy interact, it can be devastating for camaraderie.
What is Favortism?
Favortism is a kind of bias. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m not sure it matters whether that bias actually exists. What matters much more is that workers perceive there is favortism and that that favortism inspires jealousy. Jealousy by itself, while unpleasant for the person experiencing it, is not inherently destructive to working relationships. One could view ambition as a productive expression of individual jealousy. It is only possible to mold jealousy into ambition when (1) workers are not competing for finite resources, or those resources can be allocated in a way that makes everyone happy and (2) when the features that determine non-equal allocation of those resources are achievable by everyone.
Systemic jealousy is especially likely to cause problems because of the feeling of powerlessness that goes along with it. At best, systemic jealousy only affects the person feeling it. They become less motivated, less ambitions, because they don’t see a point in trying. At worst, systemic jealousy festers into resentment, leading to avoidance, rumination, or outright hostility. At some point it becomes impossible to handle these emotions.
What to do in the face of Favortism and Jealousy
I wanted to write this blog post because I’ve been in each of the positions outlined below and have thought about them extensively. We can’t will ourselves to be more whole or enlightened, but we can communicate with each other and be honest with ourselves. Unless you are working in a particularly toxic environment, everyone usually wants the same things. The question is: how do we get there?
Scenario 1: You are the Favorite
Congratulations! Your coworkers believe you are the bosses’s favorite. That’s the best position to be in, right?
First of all, any scenario in which there are winners and losers is a non-optimal position for everyone. It’s of course not only possible but probably that the favorite does not see themselves as such. This is an especially fraught position to be in in American culture, because so much of our lore is about how hard work leads to good fortune. I suspect that, with rising inequality in the United States, topics like favortism will become easier to talk about because it will be seen less as a personal failure and more as a byproduct of an unequal system. In any case, if you never saw yourself as the favorite, and now someone has told you that this is how they think of you, you may feel shocked and hurt. These feelings are normal and understandable. Feelings happen.
What matters always is what you do next: my best recommendation is to believe your coworkers. Make them feel heard. They feel this way for a reason and that reason is rooted in pain. You are not the direct cause of their pain, and however they act, understand that you are not the target. This is where some emotional distancing is very helpful.
When you are the favorite and you know you’re the favorite, you may suddenly start to question whether you really deserved the good things that happened to you. This is not good for you or anyone else! I am sure that others have very good suggestions for how to handle these emotins, but recommendation is to find intrisic motivation for why you do your work and try to distance yourself from your boss’s approval. Intrinsic motivation will protect you from the whims and emotions of others around you. It takes your own feelings about favortism out of the equation.
You can’t control your boss’s behavior. Instead, focus on using your position to better the situation for others. Your coworkers are not your competition. Take your relative privilege and use it to try to make the situation better for everyone. Most of all, listen.
Keep in mind that if you are the favorite, you may have trouble garnering sympathy for your struggles from your coworkers. This is a hard position to be in. It can feel as if everyone else is against you. Since I am writing this blog post from the position that everyone wants to get along, that isn’t going to be true. It may not stop you from feeling like it’s true, so that is an important thing to recognize. I do generally believe that most problems can be solved with communication, but that won’t work if your coworkers are too hurt or angry to listen. If that’s the case, then the best way to handle the situation is give it time and to find people in the interim that are outside your working group to talk to about how you feel. While in your working group, try step back and listen more. Most importantly, make your coworkers feel heard. It’s like Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker: with great power comes great responsibility. If it helps, think of your role as a hero. I am serious. You have the opportunity to make a difference, win allies, and generally be seen as a real mensch.
Scenario 2: You are not the Favorite
(I am going to assume that you are feeling systemic jealousy, since the obvious answer to individual jealousy is ambition.)
First I want to note that I have a tendency to be very open with others about my feelings when they affect my work. I try to communicate a clear difference between how I think and how I feel, and I tend to work with some very mature people, so these kinds of conflicts are usually managable. I have had the great fortune of being able to be open and honest about my feelings with my colleagues, for the most part. That won’t be the case for everyone, which is why it’s important to have alternative coping strategies. The discussion below is for that case.
Feeling forgotten, left out, and/or unrecognized is terrible. It can cause depression, anxiety, anger, a lack of productivity, and definitely does not make you a fun person to be around. One of the greatest dangers of jealousy in this context is that it can be contagious. The major problem with feeling this level of jealousy (assuming it’s systemic and not individual) is that it can only ever be self-reinforcing. You likely already know this and the cycle of not wanting to feel jealous but still feeling powerless is exhausting.
Ideally, the best way to move forward would be something like meditation with a focus on compassion for others. I am the first to admit that I personally don’t care about others very much when I feel horrible about myself. Also, meditation is really hard and not always practical! It takes immense discipline. People who are truly content and enlightened work very hard at it. In the meantime, it can be helpful to have a strategy for managing these feelings that doesn’t require such a high baseline of clarity and kindness.
Part of what gives our emotions such power is their intesity, persistence, and negativity. I will actually sit and think through why I feel a certain way and imagine ways the world could be different that might make me feel better. I will try to figure out what I can actually fix and define the limitations I expect from others. In some sense the best thing to do is to recognize that there are many things you cannot change, and need to ride the cycle of emotions until they pass.
Given that the background scenario I’m assuming is one where people are all fundamentally decent, it is unlikely that you can displace the favorite without some not-cool behavior. Therefore, the focus should be on managing emotions. You can choose to talk to the favorite about their position and the things they do that hurt. It’s important to remember that they may be unaware of their privilege and may not have had much experience grappling with the kinds of emotions you are feeling.
The hardest part of feeling like you are not the favorite is the desire to confirm your suspicions. This can be a very dangerous desire for group camaraderie. It will feel very validating, but it can end up making the situation worse.
Also, this may be unconventional, but sometimes the best solution is to change your internal narrative. Our minds are malleable and one hack to deal with a seemingly untenable situation that feels unfair is to come up with a story to tell yourself where the situation is fair. This is a variant of the “fake it until you make it” advice, which I absolutely loathe. Instead, imagine you are playing a character. This gives you some distance from the situation. Then ask, given that character-version of me is the favorite, how would I behave? This character is someone who does not need the approval of others and is well-liked, respected, and gracious. Imagining yourself as this character can be incredibly empowering and can actually shift the dynamic in the workplace.
Dealing with Exhibiting Favortism
I had a bunch of things I wanted to write here but this post is already too long!
I’m not in the position of routinely managing anyone right now but I do worry about being fair in the future. I suspect soliciting feedback from reports is an important first step in combating bias. Transparency in the decision-making process is also a good practice. I’d be interested in hearing from more experienced people how they manage to foster camaraderie and how they address percieved slights when they come up.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ways in which we could use random assignment in democracy, academia, etc. every day in order to ensure more eqiutable outcomes. If one of the problems with favortism is the accumulated advantage at the top of a ranking, then one way to handle it is to randomly distribute resources to everyone who is above a certain threshold. We want to believe that our experiences have led us to the point where we can e.g., pick out workers who are successful, but the jury is still out on whether or not this is true.
Conclusion: The Favourite
Also, in case this comes up, I did see the movie The Favourite and it was….not mine.