Among the countless emotions we encounter in professional settings, one particularly insidious sentiment can lurk beneath the surface: schadenfreude.

This German term, meaning “harm-joy,” describes the unsettling pleasure some people derive from the misfortune or suffering of others.

When intertwined with workplace bullying or sabotage, this behaviour takes on a sinister form, amplifying the pain and suffering of its victims while feeding the darker impulses of those who commit such acts.

In this article, we’ll look at the troubling behaviour of those who get joy from others’ misfortune and the role of schadenfreude in workplace aggression. I will also discuss the root causes of people who display this behaviour.

In the extended YouTube version of the article, I also discuss the personal toll of workplace bullying and sabotage, the common ways it often affects individuals and coping strategies. You can watch it here.

What Is Schadenfreude

At its core, schadenfreude reflects a dark aspect of human nature, where individuals find satisfaction or delight in witnessing their peers’ or competitors’ failure, embarrassment, or misfortune.

However, it doesn’t just happen in the workplace. It can happen anywhere. Think of the term we have in the UK, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses,’ where envy drives upgrades to houses, cars, jobs, holidays, etc.

While it may seem counterintuitive to express joy at the expense of others, the underlying mechanisms driving schadenfreude are deeply rooted in social comparison and self-evaluation theories.

In the workplace context, where competition, ambition, and hierarchies exist, insidious joy in others’ misfortune finds fertile ground.

Employees may experience this emotion when a colleague fails to achieve a promotion, makes a mistake, or faces professional setbacks. Instead of empathising or offering support, some individuals might secretly or not so secretly revel in their coworkers’ downfall, feeding their own sense of superiority or vindication.

In cases of bullying, typically, the ‘downfall’ has been caused by the abuser. As I’ve said in many articles, abusers and bullies build themselves up by putting others down, and the joy they get from someone else’s failure causes them great delight.

The Role of Schadenfreude in Workplace Aggression

When individuals harbour feelings of envy, resentment, or insecurity, witnessing the misfortune or failure of their peers can evoke a twisted sense of satisfaction or vindication. This is particularly the case in narcissistic bullying.

In the context of workplace aggression and bullying, schadenfreude manifests in several troubling ways:

1. Derision and Mockery

Perpetrators of workplace bullying and sabotage may openly mock or belittle their victims, deriving pleasure from their humiliation and suffering.

The act of tearing down others bolsters their sense of superiority and dominance. If challenged, these people typically use gaslighting, saying things like, ‘I’m only joking. You just don’t have a sense of humour’. Classic gaslighting.

2. Sabotage and Undermining

Saboteurs may engage in covert acts to undermine their colleagues’ work or reputation, such as spreading malicious rumours, tampering with projects, or withholding critical information. These are common strategies used, especially in narcissistic bullying, during the devaluation and discard phases of the narcissistic abuse cycle.

Witnessing the downfall of their targets fuels their sense of triumph and control. It gives narcissists what we refer to as narcissistic supply – which is precisely what schadenfreude is!

3. Revenge and Retaliation

In cases where individuals feel slighted or wronged by their colleagues, schadenfreude can fuel vengeful impulses, leading to acts of retaliation or retribution.

The desire to see others suffer for perceived injustices becomes a driving force behind their actions.

Unfortunately, I’ve seen this in action, too, especially with some of my clients who’ve been subjected to the most horrendous bullying that started because they said or did one small thing that the immature bully decided was a direct attack on them.

With such low emotional maturity, the bully wasn’t weren’t able to address the issue directly, so they covertly sought revenge whenever and wherever they could.

4. Cultivating a Culture of Hostility

Schadenfreude perpetuates a workplace culture of hostility and mistrust, where colleagues view one another as adversaries rather than allies.

The pervasive atmosphere of animosity breeds resentment, fear, and a pervasive sense of insecurity. This is the classic toxic work environment that leads to a lack of psychological safety.

Understanding The Root Causes

To effectively address schadenfreude-driven workplace aggression and bullying, it’s essential to explore the underlying factors that contribute to it:

1. Insecurity and Low Self-Esteem

Individuals who harbour deep-seated insecurities or feelings of inadequacy may resort to bullying or sabotage to compensate for their own shortcomings. Witnessing the failure of others validates their own sense of superiority and worth.

2. Competitive Environments

Intense competition for limited resources, recognition, or advancement can fuel schadenfreude among colleagues. In such environments, individuals may view their peers as rivals to be conquered rather than collaborators or teammates.

3. Perceived Injustice

When individuals feel unfairly treated or overlooked within the organisation, they may derive satisfaction from the misfortune of those they perceive as having received preferential treatment or undeserved success.

I’ve seen it happen where someone didn’t get a promotion or someone relatively new was selected to be on a high-profile project over someone who had been there much longer.

Schadenfreude then becomes a means of redressing perceived slights or grievances. In such cases, it isn’t personal – the person would envy anyone given what they perceive as preferential treatment.

Again, emotional immaturity comes into play here. If they took a step back and considered why (if indeed they had) been passed over, they might see that it was because of their disruptive behaviour.

4. Lack of Empathy and Emotional Intelligence

Individuals lacking in empathy or emotional intelligence may struggle to recognise the impact of their actions on others.

The inability to empathise with their victims allows them to rationalise their behaviour and justify their cruelty.

Unfortunately, one of the top traits of a narcissist is a lack of empathy. It’s one of the easiest ways to spot a narcissist. They can mimic it if they want to, but they often can’t keep up the charade and definitely don’t feel it deep down.

The Wrap-Up

Schadenfreude-driven workplace bullying and sabotage take a heavy toll on individuals, inflicting profound emotional, psychological, and even physical harm.

By recognising the insidious role of schadenfreude in perpetuating these harmful behaviours and by implementing coping strategies to mitigate their impact, victims can reclaim a sense of agency and resilience.

Ultimately, fostering a culture of empathy, respect, and accountability within the workplace is crucial to combating schadenfreude-driven aggression and creating environments where everyone can thrive and succeed without fear of mistreatment or harm.

What Next?

As I mentioned earlier, in the extended YouTube version of the article, I also discuss the personal toll of workplace bullying and sabotage, the common ways it often affects individuals and coping strategies. You can watch it here.

Finally, if you enjoyed this article and haven’t yet signed up to get my weekly newsletter straight to your inbox, hit the ‘Newsletter’ tab at the top of the page.

As always, thanks for your continued support.

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