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When Your Pain is My Gain

If someone in the workplace is mistreated, their colleagues may respond with empathy or with schadenfreude.

Schadenfreude is experiencing pleasure, joy, or self-satisfaction after learning about or witnessing the troubles, failures, or humiliation of another.

A new study shows that schadenfreude occurs primarily in highly competitive work environments, when one person’s misfortune facilitates another’s goals.

Even worse, schadenfreude can be contagious, according to researchers at the University of Zurich. That’s why it is good business policy to establish an inclusive working climate and team-based incentives, researchers say.

Most employees have heard of or witnessed a colleague being mistreated, talked over, or bullied. To date, most research on this subject argues that observers feel empathy toward victims and anger toward perpetrators.

However, Dr. Jamie Gloor, a business economist at UZH, believes that this view oversimplifies the complex nature of social dynamics. Working with colleagues from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the National University of Singapore, she studied the emergence, development, and behavioral consequences of schadenfreude, an emotion discussed by philosophers as early as Aristotle but which modern organizational research has largely overlooked.

While modern organizations can provide positive social experiences, such as camaraderie and support, they also create competition, envy, and intergroup tension, according to the researchers.

These negative dynamics increase the likelihood that some people may benefit from the mistreatment of others, the researchers said, pointing out that it is under these conditions that schadenfreude is able to arise and thrive.

“In complex and progressively busy environments, like workplaces, we focus on what is most relevant to us and our goals,” Gloor said.

This means that schadenfreude is more likely to be directed toward employees who particularly stand out and are envied, she noted.

“The mistreatment can level the playing field, potentially increasing one’s own chances for coveted rewards, such as bonuses and promotions,” she said.

Co-workers may be particularly bold in showing their schadenfreude if the victim is deemed to have deserved the mistreatment and is somehow responsible, for example, because of past misdeeds. The researchers point out the distinction between this righteous schadenfreude and ambivalent schadenfreude, which is when the pleasure in someone else’s misfortune is clouded by feelings of guilt and shame.

The problem with schadenfreude, particularly when it is considered to be justified, is that it can set off more cycles of mistreatment, the researchers said.

This can lead co-workers to start treating the target of their schadenfreude unfairly, for example, by refusing to help them or actively excluding them. In this way, pleasure in another person’s pain can create vicious circles of mistreatment, Gloor said.

“If schadenfreude becomes pervasive among employees, mistreatment could also become the norm,” she added.

How can managers counteract schadenfreude?

The researchers advise leaders to develop shared visions and promote team-based rather than individual incentives.

Creating an inclusive environment may also help reduce feelings of “otherness,” which can also promote feelings of schadenfreude.

It is also important for bosses to maintain fair policies and procedures to reduce potential envy and resentment toward star performers, they said.

Finally, it may also be worth paying close attention to opinion leaders within social groups to avert spirals of mistreatment, the researchers concluded.

Source: University of Zurich

When Your Pain is My Gain

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2019). When Your Pain is My Gain. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 26 Apr 2019 (Originally: 27 Apr 2019)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 26 Apr 2019
Published on Psych All rights reserved.