Do you envy your colleagues’ success?
Back in my younger days I attended a private boarding school for two years while I did my ‘A’ Levels. For an averagely talented young guy from a comprehensive school in Dudley, it was something of a culture shock.
In the good old comprehensive, I was top of the class in a number of subjects. Each high grade and complimentary comment from the relevant teacher boosted my self esteem – gave me a feeling of being “better” than the other students. I wasn’t a popular kid, in fact I was probably on par with impetigo for social acceptance, and was more often than not the target for bullies who seemed to have collectively confused my head with a football. So I wasn’t walking around with a swollen head from excessive self-esteem, let’s just say that. But nonetheless, my apparent academic success allowed me to feel superior in at least one area. In these limited sets of circumstances, I was “OK” where most of my contemporaries were apparently “not OK”. In short, I was the academic achiever.
So when I moved to the poshest private boarding school since St. Posh’s Posh Academy opened in the Borough of Posh, I thought everything would be fantastic. After all, I came top in a number of subjects such as English, Music and Business Studies at my previous school – I was bound to fit in, right?
Eh, no. What I discovered upon joining was that the academic bar was considerably higher at the private school than it was at the comprehensive. In fact, it was like comparing the height of the Empire State Building to a small 10 storey tower block in Slough. Rather more steps.
Where I had previously been a high achiever, I was now distinctly average against my new peers. On the plus side, I fitted in socially and rather than being used as an item of gym equipment by the bullies, I was now popular. But academically, I was mediocre at best. What’s more, I only had two years in which to advance my skills just to match the base standard of the school at the time I joined.
This was a task equivalent to making a comb-over fashionable. It couldn’t really be done.
The result of this new set of circumstances was that I no longer felt “OK” about my academic ability. Everyone else was “OK” but I was “not OK”. Because I now felt “not OK” about my academic ability, I became envious of my contemporaries who appeared to be blessed with an innate ability to deliver high performance with little effort in areas where I seemed to require enormous effort for little performance. Bastards.
The more envious I became the more I saw myself as a victim of bad circumstances.
Now, my experiences are by no means unique and I expect my story is bringing back your own memories of similar situations from your school days. Like many of us, you’ve probably experienced situations such as mine where you find yourself coming up short in comparison with others – where you feel you’re not as good as you thought you were.
Situations where you feel “not OK” about yourself.
But just pause for a moment. I want you to consider how these situations affect your working life. Because it turns out that these situations are not unique to our academic careers – they are equally prevalent in the workplace.
The Comparison Problem
As human beings, we have all become conditioned to compare ourselves to other human beings. Throughout the course of a typical day we are continuously making micro-comparisons, be they physical, intellectual or situational. “Am I fatter than them?”, “Do they drive a better car than me?”, “Does my boss prefer Dave to me?”, “Is my report as good as Sharon’s?”, “Was that joke I just cracked as funny as the one Will told this morning?” etc, etc.
These are the things we human beings spend a lot of time thinking about. We are collectively obsessed with how we stack up against our contemporaries.
It turns out that this is an automatic internal mechanism, built into our brains and reinforced by social conditioning and experience. And it’s incredibly self-centred. In fact, it’s all about good old self-esteem.
We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to prop up our self-esteem, trying to make ourselves feel good about ourselves. This is because our self-esteem is often built on very poor foundations. Imagine going to the English Channel, building a pier out of flimsy materials in the middle of a storm and then running around trying to make adjustments in the structure to stop it falling down. Not terribly productive and likely to end in a bloody great mess. This is what we are doing all the time.
How do you feel when one of your colleagues closes a big deal? Or when a fellow co-worker is selected to undertake a prestigious secondment? Or when all the managers one level above you are given the opportunity to attend a training programme but you’re not?
Or when Debbie walks into the kitchen with a humungous coffee cup that’s twice the size of yours?
We should be pleased for our colleagues, right? But I’m willing to bet that many of us would want to throw Debbie’s stupid oversized poser mug out the nearest window.
These are the kind of situations that cause many of us to believe we are “not OK”. And going back to the pier metaphor – believing we’re “not OK” means that every one of these situations is an assault to our rickety self esteem in the same way as each wave breaks off another piece of the British Leyland pier. It’s a constant fight to stay standing.
Breaking The Cycle Of Envy
This cycle of self-esteem maintenance, which encourages comparison and then results in envy where the comparison is not favourable, makes working life far more difficult that it should be. This nonsense is simmering away under the surface in your office and your performance and quality of life is being affected by it. Do you want this to continue?
I suspect not. I mean, telling your manager that your poor performance in a task was the result of a drop in self-esteem caused by Debbie’s Bentley of coffee cups showing up in the kitchen is not going to cut it.
You can’t necessarily change this in others. But you can do something about it yourself. You can change the way you think.
1. Look into others
We tend to look up to those we perceive as being more successful or more “OK” than ourselves. This is an inherently inferior position – similar to a child’s view of a parent. “I’m not OK, because he’s OK”.
Instead of seeing others as superior, luckier or more “OK” than you, think logically about what it is about them that you value. Ask questions such as:
- What is it that I admire about them?
- What have they done that I haven’t? How might I do that?
- What are their strengths and weaknesses?
- What barriers might they have in their work life?
When we use our mind in this way we turn off our emotional mode and engage our thinking mode. Rather than seeing someone as more successful than ourselves and reacting emotionally to that (i.e. I’m “not OK”), we begin to logically assess what lessons can be learned and how we might apply it to our own situations. We see into other people.
This brings me neatly on to the next tip.
2. Celebrate their success
We often see other people’s success as a kind of barrier to our own achievements, as though their being successful has closed off the route to our own success. This is particularly true in workplace environments.
However, you have a choice here. The reality is that other people’s success is a signpost demonstrating what is possible. Someone doing well within the workplace is immensely positive for you, because it shows what you might be able to achieve yourself.
Celebrate the success of others. After all, like you, they were probably “not OK” with themselves before they were successful. They’re just human beings, the same as you. So be pleased that they’re doing well and use that fact as motivation for your own success.
Which leads us to:
3. Give yourself a break
Like I said, we’re all human beings. Everyone has the same basic struggles as you. Just because someone else seems to be doing better, don’t assume that they didn’t have to overcome similar barriers to those you face. Don’t assume that because someone else looks “OK” that they don’t feel “not OK” in certain aspects of their lives.
It’s perfectly normal to be “not OK” about yourself. Which means that in actual fact, you are “OK”.
So give yourself a break.
4. Build your self-esteem on solid foundations
Remind yourself of your achievements, your good qualities, your skills. Take pride in who you are and what you already bring to the table, remembering that you can add to all of these things with hard work and endeavour.
There are things you can do which your colleagues cannot. There are things you have that they don’t. All too often, we forget our positives and focus on our deficiencies when comparing ourselves to others.
Build your self-esteem on what you have already accomplished and what you can already do and your metaphorical pier will stand up in any weather.
If only I had known this when I was at school. I would have realised that despite being academically behind my new colleagues at the oh-so-posh private school, I actually had talents in some areas that they didn’t. If I had looked into my fellow pupils and sought to understand how they had become so academically gifted, I would have had a strong chance of drastically improving my own academic skills.
Certainly would have been more productive than burning the school down. (Just kidding!)
I want to leave you with a great quote which sadly, I am unable to attribute as I can’t recall where I found it. If anyone does know who originated this, please let me know and I will add the appropriate credit.
Anyway, this is a quote that you should always remember:
Worth remembering, I think.
So next time Debbie uses the entire contents of the kettle to fill her cavernous caffeine container, give her a break, huh?
Managing Director, Franklin-Hackett Ltd.
If you’re interested in training that will help you to manage your self-esteem and get more from others, why not drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org