More mind games at work? Successful people are nicest to those who dislike them

Worried about office politics? Now there's another trap to watch out for: Successful people are more likely help those who seem jealous of them, in order to avoid being targeted by malicious coworkers.

Turns out that there are two different kinds of envy: benign and malicious. In a study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, Niels van de Ven of Tilburg University and his colleagues, Marcel Zeelenberg and Rik Pieters, found that people with benign envy "were motivated to improve themselves, to do better so they could be more like the person they envied." But those suffering from malicious envy are the ones who may be out to get you -- and the ones people are more careful to kiss up to.

The theory holds true outside of the office as well. In experiments, van de Ven and his colleagues told subjects that they would receive a reward of five euros; some were told they had won the cash prize because they had done well on a test, others were told the money was theirs for no particular reason. Then the subjects were asked to spend time and effort giving advice to a potentially envious person. Those who felt they were the subject of malicious envy -- the ones who won money for no particular reason -- tended to spend more time giving advice than those who were told they had earned their cash rewards.

In the office, this means that your coworkers are likely to want to improve their performance if they think you've been rewarded for your hard work. But if they think you've been elevated because you've been gunning for a promotion, or schmoozing with the boss, or just trying to make yourself look good, then they're more likely to want to take you down.

No word on whether the subjects were male or female, but it's not really surprising that fear of reprisal would be a motivating factor in treating your coworkers well. There's an old saying that men kill their weak, but women kill their strong -- the idea that, for men, removing a weak link makes them all feel safer, but for women, who tend to work as individuals rather than as a unit in the workplace, safety is found in eliminating threats, not building on strength. That may be why there's no real female counterpart to The Old Boys' Network; while men are quick to toot their own horns and consider competition invigorating, women tend to peg one another as "aggressive" or "bitchy" for striving for the same kind of success.

So, how do you keep the green-eyed monster at bay? When you get an unexpected windfall at work -- of money, of security, of praise -- try to spread the wealth around. Suggest a department-wide pizza party after your solo lunch with the boss (don't worry, you can still network on your own), spend a little bit of your bonus on cookies for your coworkers, and make sure to publicly praise everyone who worked on a project, so that it doesn't seem like you ended up with all the credit.

And remember: While you can't make everyone like you, you can do a lot to make sure people have less of a reason to dislike you for your success.

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