Images are unavailable offline.

Lingtao Yu

Lingtao Yu is an assistant professor at the Sauder School of Business at University of British Columbia.

It’s understandable why employees would sometimes envy their bosses. They earn more money, they make the big decisions and they often garner most of the accolades and perks.

But envy between employers and their employees is not a one-way street. In fact, studies have shown that more than a third of mid-level bosses experience downward envy – that is, envy of their employees – especially if those employees show leadership potential, have a close relationship with senior executives, or have a strong friendship network within the company.

Story continues below advertisement

And that envy can have significant consequences for businesses and their workers – both good and bad.

Over the course of nine months, my colleagues Michelle Duffy of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Bennett Tepper of Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business and I studied two corporations in China. There, we had supervisors and employees regularly fill out surveys that revealed how they felt about themselves, as well as those above or beneath them.

What we found was that when the envied employees were “cold and competent” – meaning they were capable workers but had a chilly attitude or were more calculated ladder climbers – the employer would be more likely to act abusively and limit that worker’s power.

In other words, when employers feel their employees could go after their leadership position in the future, or may pose some other kind of threat, they strategically try to drive that employee down to negate that threat. They feel the need to take action – and because they are supervisors, they have the power and the resources to abuse their employees.

Downward envy isn’t always counterproductive, however. If the envied employee is seen as “warm and competent” – someone with potential but who is also a supportive and friendly team player – bosses are far more likely to push themselves to improve, rather than pushing the competition down.

So, if a supervisor feels the envied employee is warm and competent, he or she will tend to see the worker as a friend or role model. Even if the supervisor still feels threatened, when they think about how to deal with that threat, they think, “Maybe I’ll improve my own performance and try to catch up with the employee.”

Many studies have looked at what happens when co-workers envy each other, or when workers envy their bosses – but we believe our study is the first to empirically show the existence of downward envy, and to prove that some envy can lead to positive outcomes. The findings are consistent across both companies, and recent research from the United States and Europe also indicates the results would be consistent across cultures and workplaces.

Story continues below advertisement

The research sends a key message to corporate head offices, because senior managers often treat envy as a toxic emotion that only does harm – when in fact it can be a beneficial part of a healthy workplace culture. As a result, it’s important for senior managers to look at the subtleties of employees’ behaviours, for better or for worse.

The research also offers a valuable insight to employees looking to get ahead: don’t act cold in the workplace.

If your supervisor considers you a real threat, they are more likely to abuse you in the workplace. People shouldn’t hide their talents, or act less competent; you need to be competent. But in terms of warmth or coldness, when it comes to interpersonal relationships in the workplace, it’s far better to play nice, because it’s an excellent way of protecting yourself – and ultimately, of putting yourself in an enviable position.

We’ve launched a new weekly Careers newsletter. Sign up today.