Great Cultures Rely on Superficial Relationships

knifeThere’s an old Russian proverb about two farmers that goes something like this: One farmer grew enough potatoes to power a Wise factory for years (clearly, I’m modernizing). His neighbor barely sprouted a potato to distill into a shot glass (stereotyping, too).

One day, a genie comes to the unsuccessful farmer and offers to grant a single wish. What do you think the peasant asks for? A better harvest? Riches to retire in Crimea? Tickets to Hamilton?

“I wish for you to destroy my neighbor’s farm,” the poor farmer pleads.

This story is supposed to symbolize a historic attitude among many Russians—that tearing down those around you brings more satisfaction than lifting yourself up.

Russians aren’t the only ones afflicted with schadenfreude. I recently came across a couple of not-so-new studies suggesting why some employees go low when other achieve high. In “Victimization of high performers: The roles of envy and work group identification” and “Is it better to be average? High and low performance as predictors of employee victimization,” researchers delve into how less successful coworkers sometimes attack their more accomplished counterparts. They lie, gossip, undermine, deny resources—basically, they become Regina George.

Not like you need a bunch of papers to confirm what you already know: Envy mixed with an inferiority complex can cause people—maybe even you—to mutate into total jerks. At the same time, workers who overestimate their performance and don’t get the respect they think they deserve may also conspire to undercut peers.

At one company I worked, there was chitchat about two senior leaders cheating on their spouses with each other. True or not (probably not), I sensed that some people were wielding the rumor as a weapon.

So, how can companies promote a high-performing culture in the face of a spiteful counterculture? One recommendation is for flourishing employees to consider “downplaying their accomplishments and maintaining a humble outlook to avoid potential victimization in the future.”

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