Beneath Office Rivalries Lurks an Evil Pleasure

What does it take to expose your devil inside?

Image by Waldkunst from Pixabay

When I was in my late teens, I deliberately told a lie. A young lady I was fond of asked if I had a girlfriend. I said no. But I did have a girlfriend. In fact, after months apart, I’d just fought hard to get back together with her days earlier.

Nevertheless, there I was. Just a boy. Standing in front of a girl. Telling her I was available. Even though I knew I wasn’t, and every bone in my body was dancing with wickedness.

It was a flipped and twisted version of the famous scene with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts in Notting Hill. And it concluded as most Hugh Grant movies do: I bumbled my way through it and ended up looking like a complete jerk.

It’s hard to admit, but we’ve all done it, haven’t we?

Something a little naughty?

Something even evil?

The Lucifer Effect

“The line between good and evil is permeable,” says psychologist and author Dr. Philip Zimbardo in his book, The Lucifer Effect. “Almost anyone can be induced to cross it when pressured by situational forces.”

On the pendulum of good and evil, most of us aspire to swing towards the good. But Zimbardo argues our will to do what’s good and right can fundamentally change based on social circumstances. (In the 1970’s he ran an experiment to prove it.)

Now, these situational forces undoubtedly change throughout our lives. Being in my mid-forties, I’m less likely to find myself committing the dishonourable acts of my hormone fuelled situation as a teenager. Maturity exposes us to a whole other set of forces, each with the potential to change the pendulum’s momentum.

What is it, then, that might send us to the dark side?

One such force capable of exposing our devil inside is likely to be encountered in the workplace. Particularly in highly competitive environments.

Competitive company culture

A little jab here. A little jibe there. Some friendly office ribbing. It’s all in good fun, right?

Companies talk proudly about their competitive culture. An environment deliberately created to “get the best” out of employees through a sense of rivalry.

Bridgewater Associates openly promotes a culture where only “the best ideas win.” Founder, Ray Dalio, outlines the operating system for the company’s culture — once described as “where employees routinely judge one another’s performance” — in his book Principles.

In the late noughties, Netflix pivoted from DVD rentals to the online video streaming behemoth we know it as today. Headcount snowballed. During onboarding, the company indoctrinated new employees with the mantra, “We’re like a pro sports team, not a family.

Netflix was fostering a culture based on the cut-throat competitiveness and rivalry found in professional sports. In case the sentiment hadn't quite landed, CEO, Reed Hastings, would go for the touchdown by further emphasizing the metaphor: Netflix “hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position,” he would say.

The merits of a meritocracy

This isn’t particularly new. Meritocracy has been celebrated as a way to engage and motivate employees for some time.

The premise of a meritocracy is that everyone is on equal footing. Everyone has the same opportunity to work hard, put in effort and produce their best results. Then, the best will be rewarded. They’ll rise to the top.

By its very nature, meritocracy promotes competitiveness. The only way to get a leg-up on someone else is to be better than them at doing more things that are valued — to be considered the best.

But exactly how “the best” is determined — and by who — well, that’s a little iffy. Don’t mistake meritocracy for a democracy. It isn’t.

In a meritocratic environment, everyone is your rival. On the surface, we’d like to think it’s all healthy and productive rivalries because that makes us feel good. It’s like watching Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal duking it out. Rivalries are good for the game, right?

Maybe. The success of the two companies mentioned above certainly suggests these types of cultures in business are effective. But what happens if we throw a few bad actors and the Lucifer Effect into an environment full of office rivalry?

Well, something pretty dark and evil, according to a study from Durham University.

Their abuse doesn’t just cause hell for one person. It can potentially conjure the devil in everyone.

Where evil lurks

If we observe a manager stick a metaphorical knife in our perceived rival’s back, we’re more likely to give it a twist than to pull it out. It’s an emotion so intense we’d even “sing and dance” over our rival’s wounds, the researchers stated.

When we witness bullying and hostile behaviors by managers or supervisors directed towards our rivals in intensely competitive environments, an evil pleasure stirs inside us.

The existence of this evil pleasure — also known by the German word schadenfreude — isn’t a groundbreaking discovery. A 2015 study also links employees feelings of schadenfreude to abusive supervision of coworkers and concludes such emotion is a result of feelings of justice. Importantly, though, the study found no empirical evidence of a change in behaviour caused by schadenfreude. In other words, people were content in feeling joy over someone else's misfortune, but it didn’t give them intent to act out evil behavior.

The Durham University study makes a significant distinction.

“When third-party observers perceive a rivalry relationship with victims of abusive supervision, their fairness judgment of whether victims deserve it or their sense of being a moral person may recede to the background,” the researchers found.

That variable of intense competitive rivalry appears to pervert our sense of right and just, removing our resistance to evil.

“Schadenfreude may fuel competition-related motivational states (e.g., motivation to win), which in turn could translate into further harming behavior toward rival victims of abusive supervision.”

Specifically, the researchers found evidence that workers experiencing schadenfreude through observing rival colleagues poor treatment would target the victims with even more destructive behavior. They’d undermine them, be rude to them, and generally engage in a deviant manner.

That’s quite sadistic. Are we really capable of this?

Well, yes. It’s what Zimbardo warned us about in The Lucifer Effect. Situational forces can cause anyone to swing towards evil. Companies are unwittingly introducing such a force by manufacturing a work culture of intense competition, combined with bad managers and supervisors.

So, is it avoidable?

Yes. The Durham researchers even offered up a strategy.

Suppressing the devil inside

The results of their study found that establishing and reinforcing group cooperative goals counteracted the urge for evil deeds against rivals who’d stumbled into misfortune.

“This may provide a way forward for organizations to continue to reap the benefits of competition while reducing mistreatment among coworkers,” they concluded.

In practical terms, establishing cross-team collaboration — or a matrixed organization structure — would be one way to shift from an every-person-for-themselves mentality to more of a shared identity. This sets interdependent goals which require great teamwork as opposed to pitting individuals directly against each other. Complimenting this would be a company-wide execution framework, like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), made famous by its implementation at Google in the early 2000s.

There’s another obvious mitigating factor not mentioned in the Durham paper, but evident to this author: Avoid hiring jerks. Managers or supervisors who take pleasure in bullying direct reports need not apply.

Their abuse doesn’t just cause hell for one person. It can potentially conjure the devil in everyone.

There’s no denying that many modern organizations have a highly competitive culture, providing a fertile ground for rivalry to thrive. It must be effective judging by the success of those which openly promote it, like Netflix. But CEOs, founders and other senior leaders in these rivalrous environments should be quick to stamp out abusive and bullying behaviors of managers and supervisors while continuing to promote a group identity.

By not doing so, the risk of schadenfreude — the evil pleasure — can profoundly affect the behaviors of otherwise good and decent people.

Because, deep down, we all know it: Once you’ve let Lucifer off the leash, it’s difficult to lock him up again.

Melbourne -> Seattle -> Perth | Experience-based commentary on startups, biz & life | xMicrosoft; xAuth0 | Writer: The Startup, The Ascent + more.

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