Washington: Contrary to what is popularly believed, it is not necessary that every time someone in the workplace is mistreated, their colleagues respond with empathy.
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, a recent study believes that this view oversimplifies the complex nature of social dynamics. In such situations, employees can also respond with schadenfreude. This emotion, according to the study, occurs primarily in highly competitive working environments.
Together with colleagues from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the National University of Singapore, she devoted her latest publication to the emergence, development, and behavioral consequences of schadenfreude — an emotion long discussed by philosophers as early as Aristotle but which modern organisational research has largely overlooked.
These negative dynamics increase the likelihood that some people may benefit from the mistreatment of others. It is under such 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,” said Jamie Gloor, one of the lead researchers of the study published in the Journal of Academy of Management Review.
This means that schadenfreude is more likely to be directed toward employees who particularly stand out and are envied
“The mistreatment can level the playing field, potentially increasing one’s own chances for coveted rewards such as bonuses and promotions,” Gloor added.
According to the author of the study, observers may be particularly bold in showing their schadenfreude if the victim is deemed to have deserved the mistreatment and is somehow responsible – because of past misdeeds, for example.
The researchers make a 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 that which is considered to be justified, is that it can set off more cycles of mistreatment. So observers may also 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. “If schadenfreude becomes pervasive among employees, mistreatment could also become the norm,” concludes Gloor.