A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
September 2nd, 2013 by William


Do you experience a sadistic sort of pleasure at misfortunes that befall your colleagues at work? Come on tell the truth. I have to admit I sure did when someone I thought deserving fell from grace. Most of you will undoubtedly agree, and those that don’t are probably not being truthful. We all do it–relish a rival’s downfall. When we relish the misfortune of others it’s due to our thinking that the other person deserves the misfortune somehow (maybe they wronged us in the past) and thus we feel better about ourselves. Think about it. If you enjoy the misfortune of another, then there must be something about that misfortune that’s good for you, right? Otherwise why would it feel so good? There’s a name for that feeling of ecstasy we feel when one of our colleagues gets chewed out by the boss or the office jerk finally gets laid-off. That feeling of pleasure at the misfortune of others is called “Schadenfreude.”

Simply said, Schadenfreude is “the pleasure derived from the misfortunes of others.” This word is borrowed from German, and the direct English translation is “damage-joy” or “fail-joy,” and it is the feeling of joy when one sees another fail or if you feel an evil sort of pleasure at the foul-ups of others. Merriam Webster’s defines Schadenfreude as “enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others.” I’ve also seen it described as “a bully’s satisfaction.” This would explain why most bullies walk around with smiles on their faces–they’re enjoying the havoc they create at the expense of others.

If we’re honest with ourselves we’ll all admit that we feel a twinge of pleasure when an obnoxious, or rival, co-worker gets in trouble–maybe even if they’re not obnoxious or a rival? The psychologist’s would have us believe it’s because we have low self-esteem issues. They claim those with low self-esteem experience Schadenfreude more often than most as they are more likely to feel threatened by others. However, other researchers have found that regardless of self-esteem, people tend to experience Schadenfreude when they see a co-worker suffer. That’s because in reality in the workplace “everyone” is threatened by “everyone” else.

While all of us get a kick out of the occasional blunders of a colleague, others, like sociopaths, are addicted to Schadenfreude. They thrive on other people’s misfortunes because of that feeling they get of having power over people as the instrument of their demise. They actually practice many of their sinister behaviors directly due to the feeling of Schadenfreude, hence why it’s also called; “a bullies satisfaction.”

In my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw I talk about what’s called “The Red Queen Effect.” Schadenfreude is a derivative of The Red Queen Effect. The Red Queen Effect is at work in every workplace and the one reason we experience Schadenfreude. Unlike in the real world where we can feel sadness when something bad happens to someone (even someone we don’t know), in the workplace it’s totally different. That’s because in the workplace it comes down to the simple fact that we often gain from our coworker’s misfortunes.

There’s an old saying that gives a little more insight into Schadenfreude: It’s said that if you want the biggest house in the neighborhood there’s two ways to achieve it: you can roll up your sleeves and build it, or you can tear down everyone else’s house. The feeling of Schadenfreude is our motivation for tearing down other people’s houses–or rejoicing when the neighbor’s house is torn down by someone else–house being a perfect euphemism for other people’s careers.

The Red Queen Effect is about competition and most, if not all, of our work life involves competition whether we consciously admit it or not. Napoleon once said “Never interrupt an enemy when he is making a mistake.” Misfortunes happening to rivals level the competition and provide an opportunity to get ahead in the race to the top.

Schadenfreude explains why empathy is often so hard to find in the workplace, let along any sympathy we might feel for another poor soul. That’s because self-interest is a powerful motive, and it is only natural to feel good if we are gaining from an event, any event, even if it is from another person’s misfortune.

A team of University of Kentucky researchers recently proved that Schadenfreude makes politics the divisive sport that it is. The results of their studies were published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They studied the reactions of Democrats and Republicans when the opposing party suffered some embarrassment. Needless to say each party was elated when the other party suffered a setback. We see evidence of Schadenfreude playing out every day on the news with the stories of Government dysfunction. They’re dysfunctional because of the divisiveness which finds its roots in Schadenfreude. Politics are the perfect example of The Red Queen Effect.

We see the same type behavior (albeit not quite as brutal) in everyday office politics. After all, the goals of the workplace are the same as that in politics–to either gain power or remain in power.

There is a natural Schadenfreude–friendly environment in every workplace culture. The more dysfunctional the workplace culture, the more intense the Schadenfreude feeling will be for the inhabitants when they see a colleague fall from grace. Schadenfreude is yet another reason that true teamwork is so hard to realize. It helps to understand why The Fiefdom Syndrome exists and why you’ll find the “us” vs. “them” mindset in many workplaces.

That all said, Schadenfreude is a natural human feeling, and we shouldn’t feel ashamed when we experience it. In many ways it’s just another example of our innate survival instincts. You may not even be able to consciously turn it off even if you try. So embrace it–it may be the only enjoyment you’ll experience if you’re stuck in a hopelessly dysfunctional workplace.


One Response to “Schadenfreude”
  1. Anonymous says

    Very efficiently written article. It will be supportive to everyone who utilizes it, including me. Keep doing what you are doing – I will definitely read more posts….

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