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Emotions and Environments: Schadenfreude at Work

Abstract

Organizations seeking to adopt a sustainable approach to people management need to pay particular attention to how their work environments impact employees’ wellbeing. Combining the disciplines of psychology and sustainable human resource management, this study explores the relationship between situational stimuli and wellbeing by examining how workplace structures impact employees’ emotions and behavior at work. Using a survey design, data from a sample of 408 New Zealand employees split across competitive and collaborative service environments are analyzed to see how these influence the ubiquitous, yet discreet emotion of workplace schadenfreude. Results show that while competitive structures increase prevalence of workplace schadenfreude – taking pleasure from a colleague’s misfortune – this does not appear to encourage antisocial work behaviors. How employees appraise the schadenfreude situation, as well as their national psyche, are possible factors influencing this outcome. This paper discusses these findings, along with their theoretical and practical implications and directions for future research.

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Data Availability

Data is available on request.

Notes

  1. When considering impetus, it is important not to confuse the emotion of Schadenfreude with that of envy. The impetus for envy is someone else’s good fortune (van Dijk et al. 2006, 2011a, b), while the impetus for Schadenfreude is someone else’s bad fortune; envy causes us pain, whereas Schadenfreude gives us pleasure (Smith et al. 1996).

  2. A well-known example depicting this situation at an intra-organizational level is when fund managers, working for Harvard Management Company (a subsidiary of Harvard University), raised the ire of faculty and students when they received annual compensation of around $25 million in both 2003 and 2004. After much public controversy, the threat by donors to withhold endowments and donations resulted in the imposition of a restriction on the amount of compensation that could be paid to fund managers. This saw many leave for greener fields, taking much of Harvard’s endowment portfolio with them (Nickerson and Zenger 2008).

  3. Some suggest observer sympathy for the victim could mitigate these effects (Marescaux et al. 2019).

  4. Notably, to obtain these samples, participants responses were 3:1 for working in a collaborative working environment (at the time the quota of approximately 100 collaborative responses was obtained for both surveys, responses numbered 284 and 277; to achieve approximately 100 for the competitive quota, responses numbered 756 and 754).

  5. The result was a sample comprising four groups, each having around 100 respondents. No significant differences were identified in sample demographics across these groups.

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Appendix 1

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Table 3 HRM Practices and Workplace Environment

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Edgar, F. Emotions and Environments: Schadenfreude at Work. Humanist Manag J 7, 95–116 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s41463-021-00109-x

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Keywords

  • Emotions
  • Schadenfreude
  • Competition
  • HRM systems