How to Conquer Workplace Envy

When colleagues get the things that you want, you can tame your emotions and still move forward

So your neighbor retired early, or an old colleague just launched a flashy new business. And here you are, still at the same job, wondering when your turn will come. Is that envy you feel? Don't deny it, says Jamie Dupuy, M.D., a Boston psychiatrist who frequently counsels patients on career issues.

"Envy sends a message. It gives us information to prompt us and motivate us," Dupuy says. Instead of trying to squelch that needling envious sensation, explore it and understand that it's natural, particularly given how American society deals with competition.

"We evaluate people by comparisons, and it starts when we're kids getting grades or on the sports field," Dupuy says. Compounding the issue is the fact that salary chatter remains taboo. It's easy to admire a friend who retired or landed a slick new job title without understanding the whole picture. Maybe your friend who retired took a buyout; maybe your colleague who launched her own business took a pay cut, but thinks it's worth it.

To squelch the envy monster, find out more about how your friend lucked out. "We tend to attribute success to things we have no control over, like special advantages, but that's not always the case," says Dupuy. It's empowering to remind yourself that you, too, can make your own good fortune. So ask your friend for tips. "Say something like, 'Congratulations on the early retirement. I'd love to do that some day. How did you do it?' It often comes back to a concrete and attainable answer, like a smart financial planner or number of years put in at a company," she says.

After demystifying the circumstances of your friend's good fortune, find a counterpoint emotion when thinking about them. You might be envious of your friend's new business, but are you also impressed with her work ethic? "Find a way to balance the positive and the negative," says Dupuy.

And if the jealousy becomes all-consuming, think about how you can adjust your own life to feel content. "Envy is different from resentment," Dupuy says. "If you find yourself feeling angry or resentful about a friend's success, it's a clue to look within and stop worrying about things beyond your control. Remember, your friend is going to retire or open her dream business whether you like it or not," she says. So think about ways you can control your own life—whether it's boosting your savings, angling for a promotion, or prioritizing your own retirement options.

Finally, realize that the success might affect you socially. Your retired colleague might ask you for lunch and you can't slip away, or your friend might want to go on a fancy vacation that you just can't afford. While some might urge total honesty, Dupuy suggests that you keep your envy to yourself and frame the conversation in a more positive light. "Don't say you're envious or resentful. It won't bring you closer. Instead say, 'I hope to be there someday. I am happy for your success and it motivates me to keep going. On the downside, I haven't reached that point yet, so I can't join you on the vacation.'" Yet.

Tags: career