Frances Haugen took the courageous step to become a whistleblower, accusing Facebook of putting “astronomical profits before people”. A brave woman indeed. She claims that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg is not willing to protect the public from harm. The accusations are chilling. From Facebook being used by human traffickers and armed groups in Ethiopia, to the effect Instagram could have on girls’ mental health such as body image and self-esteem. It’s called the social comparison effect, where comparing yourself to unachievable or unrealistic perfect others makes you feel bad about yourself.
I see the social comparison effect with such regularity in my self-confidence executive coaching, that I have no doubts whatsoever of the toll it takes. I’m convinced that the visual promotion of impossibly perfect others on social media is ultimately only going to be detrimental to teenagers. So how does this relate in the workplace? What effect does LinkedIn have self-confidence? All those posts of people getting promoted, doing good workplace deeds, graduating from university…
But we don’t even need workplace social media for the social comparison effect to work its worst on us. In my research on self confidence in the workplace, I discovered that those low in self-confidence often compare themselves upwardly or downwardly to others. These others can just be someone else on a Zoom meeting, or another shop floor colleague. When you consistently compare yourself upwardly to others, you are noting they are more experienced/skilled/popular/(insert just about anything else here) than you are, and you note your own lack of. If you are doing this in the workplace, then the chances are, your workplace confidence will suffer.
So why not compare yourself to those less experienced/skilled/popular/etc than yourself? Surely this downward comparison is a better plan? Well, no. It just isn’t. It leads to people seeking out flaws, weaknesses, and ‘lack-of’ in others to make themselves feel better. This in turn can lead to bullying type behaviour where others are constantly denigrated to enhance one’s sense of self.
It may make you feel better in the immediate moment, a kind of instant hit of self-confidence. But the habit of looking for flaws and problem areas in others usually doesn’t stop with others, so people often continue onto themselves, which means self-confidence continues to dip.
People can also feel ashamed for their disparaging behaviour towards others but struggle to break the pattern, or even see the pattern for what it is.
This type of behaviour can also lead to a wider sense of dis-ease in the workplace. Belittling others behind their back, or even in front of them leads to a lack of trust. Everyone knows that no-one is safe from the workplace gossip. They may be busy slagging off Gabriel in accounts to you today, and you both get a bit of a hit from that shared moment of moaning about him, but tomorrow it could be you on the receiving end.
We all compare ourselves to others, it’s part of human nature. The important bit is how we go about it. We need to compare ourselves fairly. If I compare myself to someone who has 20 years more experience than me, then it’s not a fair comparison. Nor is it fair to compare myself with someone with 20 years less experience than me. If someone has the same amount of experience as me, then there may be other things to consider – being a parent, personal health issues, caring responsibilities and so on. Everyone has followed their own path, whether self-determined or not.
So it is actually possible to compare an apple to a pear? No! You don’t know their journey. You can’t really tell whether your career is bigger or better than someone else’s. Even if they are voted the most successful lawyer in your firm, they may really just want to run a cattery in the countryside so see their career as lacking. You only know your career and what you want from it.
When it comes to social media platforms such as Facebook and Instragram, I believe that this approach of looking for fault in others to make oneself feel better is driving up numbers of bullying, abuse and harassment. Of course there’s other factors to bear in mind, no problem this has just one cause. But the more we can start to pinpoint potential causes and identify solutions, the closer we are to creating healthier ways of engaging with each other.
Maybe the best use for social comparisons is to look at what others are doing and be genuinely happy for them. To look at others and see how they have made the best of their circumstances. To look at them and see how they have made choices that are right for them. And to do this for yourself… to look at yourself and be happy for yourself, to see you are doing the best you can, to believe you made your choices according to what you needed at the time.
Dr Anna Kane is Chartered Occupational Psychologist, executive coach and team coach.
Come and join her Wednesday lunchtime mindfulness for a moment of self-acceptance, with no social comparisons and where everyone is welcome. Every Wednesday at 12.30.