Schadenfreude: How a competitive workplace affects your level of empathy towards colleagues

An image to illustrate schadenfreude, and how a competitive workplace may change levels of empathy towards colleagues
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What is schadenfreude and why do we sometimes seek pleasure in other people’s misfortune at work?

According to researchers, our level of empathy towards colleagues and feelings of schadenfreude are affected by a competitive workplace environment.

What is schadenfreude?

Schadenfreude is a psychological concept which refers to experiencing a sense of pleasure as a result of other people’s misfortune or struggle.

Some of theories of its origin include:

  • A desire to see the person struggle as a result of their previous wrongdoing, almost as though it is a karmic consequence;
  • An individualistic desire to compete with the person; or
  • Possibly as a result of a group dynamic which the misfortune of the ‘other’ provides affirmation of one’s own social group.

Jamie Gloor, a business economist at University of Zurich (UZH), explained: “In complex and progressively busy environments, like workplaces, we focus on what is most relevant to us and our goals. The mistreatment can level the playing field, potentially increasing one’s own chances for coveted rewards such as bonuses and promotions.”

A vicious circle?

The researchers make a distinction between righteous schadenfreude and ambivalent schadenfreude.

The first is when the victim of schadenfreude is deemed to have deserved mistreatment and is somehow responsible, for example, because of previous behaviour. The latter refers to when taking pleasure in someone else’s misfortune is accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame.

According to the authors, the ‘vicious circle’ of schadenfreude is that, when it is considered to be justified it leads to more mistreatment. Gloor said:

The problem with schadenfreude, particularly that which is considered to be justified, taking pleasure in another person’s pain can set off more cycles of mistreatment, such as refusing to help the person or actively excluding them. Gloor said: “If schadenfreude becomes pervasive among employees, mistreatment could also become the norm.”

Is a competitive workplace and lack of inclusion to blame?

The authors provide a series of recommendations to counteract a competitive dynamic in the workplace, such as:

  • Developing shared and team-based visions rather than individual incentives;
  • An inclusive climate to reduce feelings of “otherness”;
  • Fair policies and procedures to reduce envy and resentment towards “star performers”; and
  • Paying close attention to opinion leaders within social groups to monitor and avoid mistreatment.
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