Envy of top performers leads to bad behavior

  • July 7, 2017
  • By WashU Olin Business School
  • 1 minute read

It’s not easy being a top performer. Just ask LeBron James, Oprah, Bill Gates, or the guy in the next cubicle who is more productive than anyone else in the office.

An article published on the Scientific American website by Francesca Gino, a Harvard professor and research collaborator with Olin’s Lamar Pierce, delves into the problem faced by top performers – they risk being undermined by their peers.

Resentment and envy can drive peers to criticize, ridicule, and even sabotage a top performer’s work. Gino cites several research studies that support the finding including her study with Prof. Pierce that examined the actions of vehicle emissions inspectors. Gino writes:

Decades of research on social comparisons show that when we size ourselves up relative to people who are better than we are (or as good as we are) on a particular dimension, we are likely to experience discomfort, envy, or fear. These emotions, in turn, affect our decisions and our interactions with others.

Ironically, the research suggests that undermining top performers can be worse in workplaces that value cooperation more than competition. Gino advises managers to be on the look out for signs of tension among peers:

By helping employees recognize that the benefits of collaborating with high performers can outweigh the threats, managers can assure that star performers are embraced rather than sabotaged.

Link to Scientific American, “The Trouble with being a Top Performer”

Link to NPR, “Top Performers Risk Being Undermined By Peers, Studies Show”

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Washington University in Saint Louis

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