There is No Place for Schadenfreude in Leadership

“Leaders must rise above and commit to address the tendency to judge or withdraw in order to keep their teams productive and happy.” 

Joan MacLeod Heminway

By: Joan MacLeod Heminway
Rick Rose Distinguished Professor of Law
University of Tennessee College of Law

Competition exists all around us.  We see it in the stadiums and arenas in which our sports teams play, it is present in the many game shows on television, and it exists in industry as businesses fight for market dominance.  And, of course, it exists between and among lawyers.

Lawyers can be very competitive, and aspects of law practice are seemingly inherently competitive.  For instance, a trial or appellate litigator seeks to win the case for her client at the cost of the opposing side.  And a transactional business lawyer engages her best powers of persuasion on each key point in a contract negotiation to achieve maximum benefits for her client.  In these and other similar law practice contexts, it’s about #winning.  And that can be consistent with appropriate professional conduct characterized as zealous advocacy in the preamble and the first comment to Rule 1.3 of the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct.  (See my colleague Paula Schaefer’s nice 2011 article on zealous advocacy from the Florida State University Law Review.)

Yet, lawyers as leaders must realize that their competitive nature or the competitive nature of their work should not include gloating over an adversary’s defeat or smugly lording it over another’s loss.  Schadenfreude or epicaricacy (as it is known, but rarely used, in the English language)—rejoicing in the adversities of others—indicates a failure of personal and professional leadership.  It is rooted in envy and results in lying/deception and the mistreatment of others, as noted in a 2010 Harvard Law School Program on Negotiation blog post.  Sadly, according to a short piece posted on the Psychology Today website, because schadenfreude triggers positive self-feelings, it is a natural human response.  Significantly, schadenfreude may be contagious in workplaces, according to a recent article published in the Academy of Management Review, summarized here.

Leadership is, of course, about looking out for and lifting up those on your team—not just yourself, and especially not yourself at the expense of others.  While individualism, diversity, independence, and self-pride are important aspects of a functional team, each team member must use these attributes for the collective good of the whole—not selfishly or with ego or malice.  So, how does a leader counteract the natural individual tendency toward schadenfreude and stem its spread?

The researchers who authored the recently published Academy of Management Review article mentioned above suggest a few courses of action.  Set forth below is an excerpt from the practical implications they shared in their co-authored article that explains key elements of the overall approach they suggest.

Organizations should reduce structural, interpersonal, and intergroup tensions that cause initial schadenfreude.  First, to counter the competition that generates schadenfreude, organizations should promote cooperation through shared visions and team-based incentives.  Second, because envy is associated with schadenfreude, organizations should encourage practices that reduce envy.  Managers should be aware that deservingness is a key determinant of emotional reactions to upward comparisons—that is, whereas undeserved advantages incur envy and resentment, deserved advantages elicit benign responses.  Thus, procedural justice and distributive justice are essential for preventing high achievers from being targets of envy.  Third, managers should promote inclusive climates to reduce intergroup tension.

Although the article refers to “managers,” leaders of all kinds can use these tips to help counteract schadenfreude and stop its spread when they observe it.  This will not be easy, however, since the researchers note that observers of schadenfreude make judgments about whether it is deserved or undeserved in specific cases and may actually withdraw from interaction with the victim when the schadenfreude is deemed to be undeserved (a/k/a “ambivalent”).

Since the joy in ambivalent schadenfreude results from others’ unjustified expense, observers may feel accompanied negative emotions such as guilt, shame, anxiety, and embarrassment.  To reduce such aversive feelings and to save face, observers may choose to socially distance themselves from victims.  Social avoidance is a form of emotion-based coping in which observers avoid interactions with victims by working around them and finding alternative sources for information or resources that victims could provide.

This type of withdrawal from interaction may handicap a leader from taking action to reduce tension within her team.  Leaders must rise above and commit to address the tendency to judge or withdraw in order to keep their teams productive and happy.  Achievement of an inclusive environment involves addressing the behaviors of all team players: the perpetrators, victims, and observers of schadenfreude.

In sum, an effective leader analyzes and suppresses feelings of schadenfreude and establishes structures and practices that limit its emergence in and contagion among team members.  She must look out for more than her own guilty pleasure and that of select individual team members as other team members suffer defeats and challenges.  Otherwise, #winning becomes solely individual, causing fractures in the team that handicap leadership and limit the team’s ability to perform and achieve its collective goals.

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