Suppressing Shop “Schadenfreude”

Improving employees’ self-esteem while maintaining a healthy level of co-worker competitiveness can minimize the adverse effects of this envy-driven emotion.


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The German noun describing a feeling of pleasure when others experience misfortune is “schadenfreude.” Envy, particularly derived from those we view as competitors, fuels it.

A Princeton University study suggests that schadenfreude is a basic biological response in humans, not something we consciously choose to feel. A post on the Princeton Journal Watch blog explains how the study was conducted. By measuring the electrical activity of study participants’ cheek muscles, the researchers found that people often smile when someone they envy experiences hardship or discomfort. Participants were shown photographs of individuals associated with different stereotypes, including the elderly (pity), students or Americans (pride), drug addicts (disgust), and rich professionals (envy). These images were then paired with everyday events, such as someone winning money (positive), getting soaked by a taxi (negative) or heading to a bathroom (neutral). Participants were asked how these image pairings made them feel, and their facial movements were recorded. They smiled more in response to negative events than positive ones, but only for people they envied.

You likely aren’t surprised that schadenfreude is a normal reaction as the study suggests. But what impact might this have in a work environment? A healthy bit of employee competitiveness can help boost their productivity and maximize their potential. Employees with low self-esteem, however, are more likely to envy others’ success, fueling workplace schadenfreude. No good can come from relishing in a co-worker’s failed task.

So how do you manage schadenfreude? Results from our Top Shops benchmarking survey show that leading shops seem to have practices in place to mitigate it. For instance, many successful Top Shops offer bonus plans, which can be a win-win in that the employees are motivated by the potential for additional compensation and the shop can realize improved performance. In addition, a high percentage of Top Shops provide annual review/raise programs and team-building exercises. Both facilitate communication within a shop. Review/raise programs enable managers and employees to come together to discuss an employee’s strengths while mapping out a path for growth within the organization. Similarly, team-building exercises help improve how employees interact with each other. These shops also are more likely to offer formal training programs and reimburse employees for supplemental work-related education.

That said, it’s also important to effectively communicate individual as well as company goals and metrics. Establishing clearly defined objectives matched to each individual’s capabilities and interests can provide healthy motivation, while fair, routine evaluations reveal if he or she is on the right course for success.

These efforts are more likely to result in greater instances of employee firgun: the Hebrew word for being happy for another person’s success.