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Avoiding Social Comparison in the Workplace

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Jen Bogle

Group of colleagues brainstorming on a window covered in dry-erase marker and post-it notes.

Social comparison is a natural human tendency. We compare ourselves to other people in order to gauge and enhance our own abilities. In its best and most adaptive form, social comparison is an information-gathering tool that supports personal growth and development. By observing others, we can identify skills to develop in ourselves and even raise the bar on our career aspirations. However, the benefits of social comparison are not a given; at times, social comparison can strain our relationships and psychological well-being.

If you find that you frequently compare yourself to colleagues, there are ways to avoid that tendency—or redirect comparisons into healthy growth opportunities.

First, reflect on your motives

We compare ourselves to others for three primary reasons: to evaluate, improve, or feel good about our own abilities. 

For instance, when deciding whether to apply for a management position, you might compare yourself to a team leader in your department with a similar work history. If that person excels at managing staff, providing feedback, and delivering projects on deadline, you may imagine yourself performing the role equally effectively. 

At other times, you might proactively develop your research, writing, or public speaking skills by applying what you observe from talented colleagues—or feel pride in working with highly skilled teammates, seeing their success as a reflection of your own competencies. 

While these motives for social comparison can yield short-term benefits, they can also leave you feeling envious. However, by identifying when and why you compare yourself to others, you can cultivate self-awareness to help you to stop making comparisons or to use those comparisons productively. 

To minimize social comparison, strive for skill mastery

When setting goals, you can either anchor to others’ achievements, or focus on personal mastery by comparing your present and past performance and tracking your progress against a set of learning criteria. For instance, as a data analyst, your mastery goal could be to become proficient in the most popular coding languages and advanced visualization techniques; you then assess your progress against a skills rubric without comparing yourself to other analysts’ speed or delivery.

To remain focused on mastery, remember that orienting your efforts toward someone else’s accomplishments may steer you in a direction that reflects their interests instead of your own. Take time to reflect on what fulfills you professionally, listing what you want to achieve over the next six months to one year. This will help you to forge your own path, not inadvertently follow someone else’s. 

Refocus on what you have already

Gratitude can mitigate the detrimental effects of social comparison by redirecting your attention to positive facets of your life, such as your support network, strengths, and accomplishments. Start by compiling a list of three to five things you feel grateful to have in your life, focusing on support you receive from others. Recognizing and cultivating social support in your life can be particularly effective in dampening the negative effects of envy. 

You can also uncover reasons to be grateful for your current professional life by comparing it to more challenging moments in your career. For instance, you might feel grateful to have deeper expertise or more confidence than during your first few years of working. This way, you refocus your attention on the difference between your present and past selves rather than between you and your colleagues.

Look for role models

When comparing yourself to someone more knowledgeable, skilled, or experienced, you can either dwell on the distance between you and that person or channel their success as a source of inspiration. By proactively looking for a role model, you can find people to admire and learn from, not envy.

To tilt the balance toward admiration, list the ways in which you are similar to that more experienced person—for instance, that you were both hired by the same discerning manager or frequently see eye-to-eye in meetings. This can help you to picture yourself performing at their level, motivating you to learn from, rather than envy, their abilities.

And, remember, there is nothing wrong with making comparisons—it’s a natural human tendency. What matters is what we do with that comparison and the extent to which we allow us to determine how we see ourselves and our accomplishments

Jen Bogle profile image

Jen Bogle

Jen Bogle is a strategic communications and organization design expert working in climate and sustainable development. 

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