The Leadership Review Team

In Defence of Envy

The Leadership Review Team

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In the Indian epic, Mahabharata, Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is generally perceived to be the antagonist. His unfounded acrimony towards his highly skilled and virtuous cousins, the Pandavas, is widely considered to be the primary reason for the Great War. His underhandedness and disregard for dharma (the righteous path) are solely rooted in his irrational desire to inflict pain upon the Pandavas. His refusal to accord even the smallest piece of land, which consequentially leads to the disintegration of a great empire, is often cited as a lesson about pettiness. Any virtue on his part remains largely unknown at best. No child is named after him and he remains one of the most hated mythical characters because of his envy for the Pandavas.

On the other hand, Duryodhana’s friend Karna, who was also an envious rival of the Pandavas, is hardly ever seen as an antagonist or even negative. At his worst, he remains a tragic hero who was short-changed by fate. It does not matter that he was a willing party to the evil designs of Duryodhana and orchestrated some rather villainous acts. He justified the attempted disrobing of Draupadi and played a pivotal role in the entrapment and subsequent killing of Abhimanyu, the teenage son of Arjuna, inside the chakravyuha (an impregnable circular war formation). He even killed a cow! Yet, Karan (a misnomer of Karna) remains a very popular name for young boys in India.

Let’s explore why.

Benign V/S Malicious Envy

While Duryodhana was afraid to lose the kingdom of Hastinapur to the Pandavas, he was petrified at the thought of his elders, especially his father Dhritarashtra, considering the Pandavas more worthy than him. The constant comparison with his cousins and subsequent feeling of inadequacy is where his envy stems from. Karna on the other hand was envious of the Pandavas, especially Arjuna, because he wanted the respect that Arjuna commanded as the world’s finest archer. He was angry about being repeatedly denied the chance to prove his mettle while the Pandavas were presented with them on a platter. Duryodhana schemed to defeat the Pandavas because he perceived them to be stronger. Karna handed over the advantage to them by promising not to use more than one divyastra (divine weapon) on Arjuna and not to kill the other four brothers, to make a level playing field. Duryodhana’s envy came from a sense of insecurity rooted in weakness. Karna’s envy came from ambition, from a position of power. Duryodhana’s envy was largely malicious while Karna’s envy for the most part was benign. Traditional Indian wisdom could tell them apart.

To understand this better, let’s take a hypothetical situation. On seeing a cross country runner run long distances, you may feel admiration or envy for him. In case of envy, you may either want to be able to run long distances just like him, or you may simply wish that he topples over and falls on his face. The former is benign envy that motivates you to push yourself to next level, while the latter is malicious envy that motivates you to pull the other person down.

Web Envy 1The very idea of benign envy appears counter-intuitive as envy comes from a Latin word invidia derived from another Latin word invidere, which implied something to the effect of casting an evil eye. It sounds blasphemous as we have come to see envy as the fifth cardinal sin whose punishment is described to have one’s eyes sewn shut in Dante’s “Purgatorio”. However, an increasing number of modern day psychologists are beginning to see envy in a positive light. At the risk of getting his eyes sewn shut, Josh Gressel, in his book “Embracing Envy”, advocates acceptance of envy as a meaningful and useful emotion. Niels van de Ven, a Dutch social psychologist, in his research paper published in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, not only suggests that benign envy exists but also claims that it is a better motivator than admiration.

In a study conducted by van de Ven and his colleagues on two sets of college students, the first set of students was asked to read about a person who overcame many obstacles to become a famous scientist while the second set of students read about a person who was all set to become a great scientist and ultimately became one.  The intention was to leave the first group with the idea that behaviour change is easy and the second group with the idea that it is not. Once the groups read their respective passages, the participants were asked to read a newspaper article about a brilliant student who did well in a national academic competition.  Post that, they rated how much they wanted to be like this student (benign envy), how much they appreciated what the student accomplished (admiration), and how much they disliked the student (malicious envy). At the end of the experiment, they undertook what seemed like an unrelated study where they estimated how many hours they planned to study in the next academic semester. The results showed that the participants who were left with the idea that change is easy tended to feel benign envy and also planned to study more than the others.

Can Envy be Good?

Web Niki Lauda and James Hunt<br />  Source - GQ India

Image Source – GQ India

As the results of the study indicated, benign envy tends to manifest when you believe that you can also attain what the individual you are envious of possesses, and in turn, it fuels your efforts. Benign envy leads to emulation, and in many cases, a healthy rivalry which leads to progress for both parties involved. Take for example the rivalry between legendary Formula One race drivers James Hunt and Niki Lauda. Hunt’s envy for Lauda not only enabled him to win the Championship in 1976 but also inspired Lauda to come back stronger than ever to win the Championship back in 1977 even after a horrible car crash. They both were fiercely competitive and yet, at the end of the day, their envy would never turn malicious. “You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move”, said Lauda in an interview.

Moreover, if benign envy exists between two powerful entities, it helps the entire ecosystem they operate in. The space race between the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Soviet Space Program sent man into space, then to the moon, and gave humanity satellites which have been carrying the weight of the communication revolution on their metallic transponders. The Foundation of the e-commerce boom was laid in India when two young men, Sachin and Binny Bansal, started Flipkart with the idea of emulating Amazon. It gained momentum when many others joined in to emulate Flipkart. According to an ASSOCHAM-Deloitte study, the e-commerce industry in India is set to cross the business worth $16 billion this year.

Logically enough, our society, its institutions, and its leaders need to see envy in a new light. It should no longer be considered a dark, sinful emotion but a neutral force of nature that can be leveraged for good. Especially when we have examples of how benign envy gets the best out of both parties involved, like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Salman Rushdie and VS Naipaul, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, Jay Leno and David Letterman, Gary Kasparov and the developers of IBM’s Deep Blue computer, Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, Airbus and Boeing, and many more.

The Caveat

As leaders promote benign envy between their teams and individuals within their team to create a sense of healthy competition, they have to be mindful of the easy-to-breach line between benign and malicious envy. When ‘I want to handle pressure like my colleague’ envy meets ‘but I cannot’ belief, rooted in low self-esteem, benign envy gives way to schadenfreude, which translates to pleasure derived from misfortune of others.  Also, if the envy moves from ‘I want to handle pressure like my colleague’ to ‘I want to gain the favours of my boss just like my colleague has’, it becomes jealousy. In South-Asian collectivist society, where feudal ethos still reign supreme and loyalty pits competence more often than not, it is very plausible. Duryodhana’s envy turned into jealousy and schadenfreude because he felt that his teachers and elders were biased in favour of his cousins, whose skills and virtues he felt he could not match.

So, to avoid the war of Mahabharata in their backyard while promoting benign envy, leaders need to:

– Ensure that they are perceived to be neutral and not playing favourites.

– Ensure that opportunities and encouragement are available for everyone to emulate the ones they envy.


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