Envy and the Call to Humility
Employee motivation comes in multiple forms. Some are motivated by recognition and the pursuit of job titles while others are content maintaining the status quo. Some stereotypes of government employees suggest veteran municipal workers are content holding the same position for years or decades while being less willing to become innovative despite the jobs’ environmental pressure. When new technology is implemented, there is natural turnover of veteran employees with no desire to learn new systems.
Many comparisons have been made between veteran employees and the wave of candidates many of whom are millennials slated to fill vacancies. Millennials in the dawn of their career (in full disclosure I am one of them) have largely grown up in a yes society where a lot of their childhood desires were met. Later in life, they were insulated from and deferred the challenges of the Great Recession and its lasting impact by attending college. While the prior and next depictions are not universal, armed with degrees, these millennials are looking to make a social impact and receive the highest praise they believe accompanies such focus.
The opportunity to receive praise has an ally in governments of numerous sizes and structures as there is pressure to function more like businesses. Examples include governments switching to defined contribution retirement plans for new hires, altering non-financial benefits packages to reflect the private sector most importantly for this discussion, implementing performance metrics that have been used by businesses for a couple of decades. Coupling the shift towards business-like practices with the wave of new employees, municipalities have employees looking to gain recognition for their work and who are willing to use such recognition to capitalize power and exercise management level authority.
When others gain recognition, some veteran employees and millennials may not find joy in others’ good fortune. It is more common to be resentful, bitter, and offended when something good happens to someone else especially when the belief is, “I work just as hard and have just as many good ideas.” We believe the difference in achievement comes down to luck – fortune – in part because we operate in a world focused on comparison. These comparisons lead to the fallacy that fortune and happiness are finite and the more we see others obtain fortune, the less we believe there is happiness for us.
When we hold fortune and happiness are infinite, praise and accomplishment for one leads to our own success. We find happiness not only in our own good fortune but also in every good thing that happens to those we know. This means we are not threatened by others success. Some may challenge this claim saying the basis of praise comes from new and innovated ways of accomplishing goals and competition, driven by envy, is a proven path to these outcomes. These same individuals may point to Roger Federer’s dig deeper than ever before win over Rafael Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open or Tom Brady and the Patriots historic come-from-behind win in Super Bowl LI.
I counter these examples and the application to one’s career, specifically careers in the public sector on a couple of points. Unlike athletics where the tennis court size, net height, and ball dimensions don’t change and the American Football field size and game clock don’t change unless it applies to all competitors, our career environments change constantly but not equally for all individuals. Additionally, an athlete’s career is noticeably shorter than our career even when Federer and Brady are having the highest success well past their expected prime. Lastly, successful economies comparable to the United States such as German and Japan are based not on individual accomplishment, but are based on collective accomplishments.
My suggestion, and more accurately my hope, is we try to show more gratitude and have a positive outlook on life. We should try to find more humility and generosity. Be thankful for the things others and ourselves accomplish. And we should be reminded the business purpose of municipal and nonprofit organizations is external services not internal prosperity.