Melbourne Business School News Research Within Reach: Replacing envy with positive empathy in the workplace

Research Within Reach: Replacing envy with positive empathy in the workplace

Recognising exceptional individuals in the workplace is important, but how can companies do it without making high performers the target of workplace envy?

Melbourne Business School Associate Professor of Management Deshani Ganegoda

A new paper co-authored by Associate Professor Deshani Ganegoda explores envy and positive empathy in the workplace and their effect on performance and teamwork.

"I Can Be Happy for You, but Not All the Time: A Contingency Model of Envy and Positive Empathy in the Workplace" is the focus of the latest Research Within Reach report (PDF, 750KB) released this week.

"I've always been interested in researching the dark side of organisations, which is what drew me to the topic of envy," says Associate Professor Ganegoda.

Researchers categorise envy as a negative emotion, like guilt and anger, which makes us anti-social and unable to connect with others without betraying our negative feelings.

Without understanding the impact of envy, reward and recognition programs which recognise best performing employees in the hope of motivating others can sometimes have unintended consequences.

If employees regard their reward and recognition program as a zero-sum game, where all but one are losers, they could become envious, even malicious, and try to undermine the best performer. In such a situation, people would be more motivated to bring down the high performer rather than improve their own performance.

"My overall research interest is negative behaviour and why people do negative things, but then I started questioning if it is the only way we can respond to someone else’s success?"

This led Associate Professor Ganegoda to the idea of positive empathy. Defined as feelings of happiness for someone else’s positive outcome, positive empathy could play an important role in promoting cohesive teams.

"There's enough background theory – for example, the broaden-and-build theory – to suggest that when you experience positive emotions, you're more likely to look for options, learn from other people and be creative and innovative. All those things are related to positive, not negative, emotions."

There are a number of initiatives that organisations can adopt to foster positive empathy – abolishing zero-sum reward and recognition programs as a start, but also creating fair reward programs and providing opportunities for others to emulate the success.

Also important is creating a shared identity in the organisation so people feel like they are working for the same company, not against each other.

In Associate Professor Ganegoda's view, organisations will need more positive empathy to boost collaboration and creativity as they seek new solutions to new problems to survive rapid change. And the more that creative teams come to dominate the workplace, the more organisations need to review their old workplace practices, structures and incentive systems.

"I want to help organisations understand how they can use positive empathy to improve workplace relations and incentivise performance without unleashing the destructive power of envy," she says.

Research Within Reach is a regular publication from Melbourne Business School designed to explain the latest research by our academic faculty in easy-to-understand language. You can download the latest report here (PDF, 750KB).

Associate Professor Ganegoda's research centres on the general topics of behavioural ethics, organisational justice, negotiation, and workplace deviance. Visit her faculty profile for more information.

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