Have you ever experienced the guilty pleasure of reveling in someone else’s failure?  The German term schadenfreude – defined as “taking pleasure in the misfortune of others,” has become popular to describe this unconscious phenomenon.  Over the past ten, schadenfreude has become a subject of fascination and intense study.  If you Google “schadenfreude in sports,” you will come up with hundreds of thousands of pictures and stories showing the phenomenon alive and well.  But the concept goes far beyond the sports arena.  For example, the US TV show “Americas Funniest Home Videos” featured snippet after snippet of schadenfreude moments that made millions of home viewers laugh every week.

Schadenfreude is alive and well in Western workplaces, as well.  One example is a “gotcha” culture. Have you ever had a boss who liked to point out others’ errors in meetings?  Or a colleague who sarcastically corrects others in groups?  What is the consequence for the group, the organization, and the work?  These people are likely trying to show they are clever, or superior in some way, but their actual effect may be quite the opposite.

Recently, I have been dealing with a “gotcha” person (“Dale”)  in a work environment. For example, another colleague (“Kim”) forwarded an old document with some typos and outdated information that she wanted us to review in an upcoming meeting.  At the outset of the meeting, Dale said, “Kim, that document was a total mess!  I cringed when I read it!” and laughed.  While the rest of us also laughed nervously, Kim’s embarrassment was palpable.  I felt sorry for her and angry at Dale.  He has done similar things to me: “teasing” me about errors when others are present rather than in private.  As a new member of this group, I find myself being less forthcoming with information and ideas, for fear of being teased.  The result is a less productive and meaningful group experience and weaker team cohesion.  In my lesser moments, I wish that Dale was no longer part of the team.

It seems that Americans have a different relationship with this concept than do people in Asian cultures.  My good friend, Maya Hu-Chan, a global expert and coach on navigating global workplace environments, sees a deep contrast between schadenfreude and the Asian notion of “saving face.”  According to her, saving face is the highest form of respect you can show for another person.  Cultures that promote face-saving not only avoid making fun of others’ errors, but they also help those individuals recover quickly and with the highest degree of dignity.  When people feel psychologically safe, they are willing to take more risks, promoting innovation, and likely building stronger teams.

Is it that schadenfreude doesn’t exist in Asian cultures?  Psychological research would say no, that such unconscious processes are universal.  However, social constructs play an important role here.  If, as Maya Hu-Chan suggests, society places a higher social value on showing empathy and being firm but kind, we are more likely to be helpful and supportive.

In the West, we see a disturbing trend toward more schadenfreude rather than less.  For example, politicians, notable people, and everyday folks regularly take to Twitter to embarrass or shame others, rather than hold private discussions to air their concerns.  This fuels a greater divide in those individuals and those that support them.  Just like those die-hard Red Sox/Yankee fans, celebrating the weaknesses and mistakes of those who differ from us denigrates empathy and creates greater division.

Endurance Leaders promote long-term success in their teams, and the greater culture, by shunning schadenfreude and embracing these strategies:

  • Maintain the mental discipline of an Endurance Athlete. The best endurance athletes maintain a relentless focus on the long-term goal.  Celebrating an opponent’s injury on the football field does not get you any closer to the Super Bowl.  Rejoicing in a fellow cyclist’s flat tire in a triathlon does not advance you to the finish line.  Staying mentally disciplined protects you from distractions that can compromise performance.  Stay true to your overall mission.
  • Hold people accountable while building trust. When team members fail or make an error, hold them accountable in a way that maintains their dignity and saves face.  Public humiliation (often in the form of teasing)  is not a learning tool – it is a weapon that erodes trust.  Instead, show empathy by normalizing the situation, ask for lessons learned, and invite in other perspectives to help build success in the future.
  • In the immortal words of IceCube, “Check yourself before you wreck yourself.”  If you/your team are using “gotcha” tactics or making sport of others’ errors, it is time for a gut check.  What is driving this behavior?  Is there insecurity or a desire to be liked?  Is there a level of distrust or us vs. them dynamic within your team?  Get to the heart of the matter quickly, so you can refocus efforts toward a collaborative environment – critical for reaching long-term goals.
  • Learn more about Saving Face in Maya Hu-Chan’s forthcoming book of the same title, which you can pre-order here.