REALITY BITES: People at work typically want what those above them have. This desire to move up the pecking order is what motivates people to do a good job

REALITY BITES: People at work typically want what those above them have. This desire to move up the pecking order is what motivates people to do a good job - Many of you will have visited the cinema this summer to watch a large green man tearing up buildings. Although the science of The Hulk largely went over my head, I'm pretty sure that the biggest question of all - why does Dr Banner turn green with anger? - was unanswered.

by Richard Reeves, a consultant and business writer
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Many of you will have visited the cinema this summer to watch a large green man tearing up buildings. Although the science of The Hulk largely went over my head, I'm pretty sure that the biggest question of all - why does Dr Banner turn green with anger? - was unanswered.

After all, green is associated with an altogether subtler and more sinister emotion than anger - envy. Focusing on this feeling would have produced a darker, homelier movie, although I admit it would have made for less exciting special effects. For the green-eyed monster stalks all of our lives, even our workplaces.

Envy is usually frowned upon by both religion and philosophy. It is not one of the seven deadly sins for nothing. And deadly it can often prove, as we know from reports of crimes passionels involving the murder of a rival and/or lover. Even the most secular thinkers have tended to agree with the Christian admonition, believing that the path to happiness does not involve comparisons with the fortunes of others.

Yet we habitually compare ourselves to others, using the lives, abilities and resources of our friends, neighbours and colleagues as a benchmark for our own situation. The question is how those comparisons influence our behaviour and feelings. If somebody has something we want, there are two possible responses - to wish we had them, or to wish that they did not. (Of course, it's possible to feel both.)

Malicious envy was perfectly described by Helmut Schoeck, who said that 'the envious man thinks that if his neighbour breaks a leg, he will be able to walk better himself.' But it is also possible to be spurred on by the achievements of others, to feel what Peter Goldie, in his brilliant book (damn him!) The Emotions, calls 'admiring envy.'

If we are motivated by the desire to match or surpass the achievements or possessions of others, might 'envy be necessary for the successful working of a market economy'?, as Goldie provocatively asks.

Equally, you might ask if admiring or motivating envy is necessary for a productive organisation. People at work typically want what the people above them have - a better job, more money, a more luxurious office, a PA. And this desire to move up the pecking order is a big part of what motivates people to do a good job.

The position on the ladder is an important contributor to job satisfaction. In a study of satisfaction with pay levels of 16,000 workers in a range of organisations, Andrew Oswald and colleagues at Warwick University found that a person's position on the pay ranking was a significant predictor of how happy people were with their salaries - even after allowing for absolute pay levels and distance from the average pay level. In other words, it matters whether my salary is the third- or seventh-highest in a 10-person department, regardless of how high it is. It looks as if someone might be happier on pounds 25,000 than pounds 30,000 if it puts them nearer the top of the pecking order.

This can surprise economists, who don't like social effects messing with their equations, but it would be expected by evolutionary biologists. Peacocks have such wonderful feathers to signal their health and vitality, their attractiveness as a mate. Complex status systems govern behaviour across the animal kingdom.

It is now unfashionable to give a person an office or a PA simply because they've reached a certain level in the hierarchy. Even the civil service, which used to excel at the finest gradations of status - the depth of carpet pile in your office was grade-dependent - has moved to open-plan offices and flatter hierarchies. It is now seen as politically incorrect to signal status with a vast corner office.

As a result, of course, new feathers have grown - the lightness of your laptop or whether you turn left on boarding an aeroplane for a business trip. But these are sometimes inadequate. One large consultancy is considering giving its senior partners offices again, even though they are rarely in the building and despite having shifted to universal, egalitarian hot-desking some years back. 'They get paid a fortune,' explains an HR person, 'but they are saying they want something more visible. They want a sign of how valued they are.'

On strict business grounds this makes no sense. But firms should bear in mind Desmond Morris' reminder that we are risen apes rather than fallen angels. We are status-seeking creatures and the office has become an important space for signalling our position, for parading our feathers. If one of the reasons people strive to get ahead is so that they can signal their higher status to others, removing the signs may reduce the motivation. Even money, as Oswald shows, is in part about pecking-order position.

And let's face it, there are much more destructive ways to assert seniority than by means of a nicer carpet or a more desirable view. It might be better to give rein to these primeval instincts, rather than bottle them up. You wouldn't like me when I'm envious.

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