How do you feel when one of your sales colleagues closes a big deal? Or when a fellow manager is recognised for leading one of the best projects in the company? Or when a coworker is selected for a special assignment or training program? The politically correct answer is that we're supposed to feel pleased.
Photo via maradonna 8888 (Shutterstock).
This post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review.
When people that we work with are successful, it's not only good for them but it also benefits the entire organisation. So we should celebrate, raise our glasses, and cheer for our colleagues' success. And most of the time, we genuinely celebrate their achievement. But let's admit it: Deep down, some part of us can feel envious, resentful, or disappointed. Why did someone else get recognised and I didn't? What are the implications for my job? Will I have to work harder to compete and keep up? Did I have the same opportunity to be successful — and I missed it?
Most of us try to suppress these feelings. On a personal level, we've been taught that it's impolite, or even a cardinal sin, to be envious of others. Organisationally, we've been schooled in the importance of teamwork, believing that when one of us succeeds, we all win. But the reality is these "moral principles" sometimes run counter to human nature.
At heart, we're all narcissists to some extent, descendants of the Greek mythological figure who fell in love with his own image. As such, we all tend to focus on our own success first, and we worry when we're not promoted, recognised, or rewarded to the extent that we think we deserve. When someone else gets the gold medal, we feel a twinge of competitive envy and personal insecurity.
Most of the time there's nothing wrong with these feelings, especially when they inspire us to work harder and improve our own performance. But there are instances when these deep-seated emotions can consciously or unconsciously lead to dysfunctional behaviours. For example, not long ago one of the top producers at a professional services firm resigned partly because her colleagues, fearing that she was becoming "too big a name", stopped sending her referrals and talked negatively about her to clients. Similarly, in a manufacturing company, a recent promotion led to morale problems within a team because many of them felt that they were more deserving of the raise.
It's hard to root for others without also thinking of yourself. In addition, sometimes the good performers invite these reactions with their lack of humility or arrogance; or management unintentionally provokes the bad feelings by recognising people who really don't deserve it, or who have been given unfair advantages. Smart managers, of course, try to avoid these dynamics by spreading around the opportunities, giving people a range of assignments, and basing recognition on measurable accomplishments. But even the best of managers are human, and can come across as favouring one person over another.
So what should you do when you hear that a colleague has done something exceptional and you're not jumping up and down with joy? Here are three simple guidelines:
- Accept the fact that we all have mixed feelings about other people's success. Just because you experience a bit of disappointment or envy doesn't make you a bad person. It just means that you're human.
- Take a hard look at whether any of your negative feelings are justified or should be addressed. If indeed the playing field is uneven, or some favouritism was involved, then think about whether you want to talk about it constructively with your manager, a colleague, or an HR representative. If, however, the other person succeeded fair and square, consider how you can use the other person's achievement as motivation for yourself. What can I learn from what she did? What do I need to do differently to be recognised and rewarded in the future?
- Take a deep breath and say "congratulations" to your colleague. Maybe we can't all be winners all the time, but we can all be gracious and learn how to celebrate success together. Eventually, it might even be fun — and lead to a stronger team.
When It's Hard to Celebrate Your Colleague's Success [ReadyForZero]