“An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” — Mahatma Gandhi
In his fables, Aesop tells us about two neighbours who prayed to Jupiter to grant their hearts’ desires. One was full of avarice (excessive greed for wealth or material gain), and the other was consumed by envy. To punish them, Jupiter would grant their wishes on the condition that their neighbour would receive twice as much of whatever they wished for.
The greedy man prayed to have a room filled with gold. In an instant, Jupiter made it so. The man’s fleeting joy quickly turned to grief when he discovered that his neighbour received two rooms of gold. The envious man could not bear the thought that his neighbour had any joy at all. What would he wish for? He prayed that Jupiter poked out one of his very own eyes so that his neighbour would become totally blind.
The social psychologist Henri Tajfel developed a concept called the “minimal group paradigm” in the early 1970s. A Polish Jew, who fought the Nazis in World War II, Tajfel was determined to understand why we attack, discriminate, and kill our fellow human beings. The “minimal group paradigm” investigated the minimal conditions required for discrimination to occur between groups. Tajfel and his team started by giving people different names, chosen by the indifferent flip of a coin. They gradually added more conditions until the groups began to experience inter-group conflict.
The conclusion of these pioneering studies was a label is enough for people to form ingroups and outgroups. Furthermore, the team discovered what matters to most members of each group is not just “winning” versus the other group. We can accept a loss as long as the other group does not win! For “us” even a loss is a win over “them”!
Have you ever noticed people you expect to be happy for you, your friends, your family and your colleagues are sometimes visibly disappointed by your success?
“Your failures and misfortunes don’t threaten other people. It’s your assets and your successes that are problems for people who derive their self-esteem from being superior.”- Carol Dweck, Mindset
“If you lose the battle for survival, it doesn’t matter who’s in charge, who’s up and who’s down. There’s competition within the group for status, there’s competition between groups for survival, and if you lose a battle for survival, you’re done. People confuse leadership with status within the group. No, leadership is what keeps you going vis-à-vis whomever your potential threats are.” – The Innovation Show with Dr Robert Hogan
A Pyrrhic victory is a victory that inflicts such a devastating toll on the victor that it is tantamount to defeat. The phrase originates from a quote from Pyrrhus of Epirus, whose triumph against the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC destroyed much of his own forces, putting an end of his campaign. A Pyrrhic victory is a win with devastating collateral damage.
Unfortunately, such envy-driven, pyrrhic battles are fought in organisations all over the world. As the image of the gazelles above suggests, many colleagues who “should be” on the same team spend more time and effort plotting battles within the company and miss the real threats: the changing business environment, the startup that has identified a niche or the competitor that will come seemingly from nowhere.
People tend to be happy that you are winning, as long you are not winning at their game. I once worked for a manager who hired me to develop a culture of innovation. When “we” made progress, she wasn’t happy, she became envious. When I reported wins to her, expecting her to be pleased, she could not contain her rage. She soon started to lay obstacles in my path and made my work life so difficult that I was left with no choice but to leave the organisation. I had seen such toxic behaviour before but had never experienced it.
Years later, as my career evolved to work with teams and organisations to develop cultures of innovation with global organisations, I was flabbergasted to learn that organisational envy was rampant. In this case, in my naivete, I missed an important law of power, as Robert Greene highlights in his book, “The 48 Laws of Power”, “Everyone has insecurities. When you show yourself in the world and display your talents, you naturally stir up all kinds of resentment, envy, and other manifestations of insecurity. This is to be expected. You cannot spend your life worrying about the petty feelings of others. With those above you, however, you must take a different approach: When it comes to power, outshining the master is perhaps the worst mistake of all.” Our position can only be as secure as our bosses feel secure. If they feel praise is scarce, coupled with their scarcity mindset, you are snookered. An insecure boss can make quite easily and subtly stifle your progress. This counts for those of us in transformation to a greater degree.
Employees of the incumbent (legacy) organisation are often jealous of those working in innovation, transformation and on new product development. Sometimes it is because the legacy employees feel they are breaking their butt to fund foosball tables, beanbags and experimentation – none of which is real work. (Of course, sometimes alas, they are right when it comes to Innovation Theatre) Other times, it is because incumbent employees feel they are just as innovative and they would do just a good job working on innovation – if not better.
No wonder so many organisations fall prey to a predator they don’t see coming. When they are so embroiled in office politics and internal one-upmanship they are easy prey. This waste of energy from incumbents offers nimble startups ample time to catch them off guard even when the threat is obvious.
Thanks for Reading