Silicon Valley Schadenfreude

Has competition in the technology sector given way to something more mean-spirited? Have we moved from the guise of providing value to our stakeholders (be they shareholders, employees, or our buyers) into a philosophy of hyper-competition, or "win at any cost?" Is the sole object now to just win?

Organizational and behavioral psychologists for years have been studying the effect of competition (see research below). And while there is some debate that there is not even such a thing as "healthy competition," there have been numerous findings that showcase that too much competition evokes "counter-empathy." You probably know this by other terms: Schadenfreude and its cousin Gluckschmerz. For those of you who studied neither German nor Psychology, simply put:

  • Schadenfreude - taking pleasure from someone else's pain
  • Gluckschmerz - feeling sadness from someone else's success

Too much competition - hyper-competition - can lead to not only the desire to win, but an aggressive tendency to make your opponent lose. It is no longer enough for you to meet or exceed your objectives, you have to make the other person suffer defeat, and will trend toward taking pleasure from it (or feeling sadness if someone else succeeds)

What got us here?

There are many contributing factors that led us here, but scarcity of resources is one of the key issues driving hyper-competition. As a new wave of entrepreneurs approach the market, they all have "the next big thing," "a new way to disrupt the market," etc. 

What the often overlook is their real addressable market (who will really buy from them) and who else is competing in that space. 

If you look at the LUMAscape for just the marketing technology space, the first cataloging of the competitive landscape was unveiled in 2010. By 2017, the field had grown to become so crowded on one page that there are now 17 distinct LUMAscapes to capture the organizations vying for marketshare.

The 2010 LUMAscape

The 2010 LUMAscape

By 2017, this was just one of 17 pages highlighting the competitive market

By 2017, this was just one of 17 pages highlighting the competitive market

Even in everyone's little bubble, there are more and more companies competing for that same niche space. As entrepreneurs rush to market, the field becomes more crowded - less money from VCs, hard won revenue, scarcity of talent - all contribute to the competition.

Competition fuels innovation, right?

There has always been a strongly held belief that competition is the fuel for the innovation engine of Silicon Valley. Freshly minted MBA managers and seasoned veterans actually create environments to pit teams and people against each other in an effort to further innovation. However, Alfie Kohn's groundbreaking book, No Contest, showcases the flaws in this thinking. His book builds on research from the prior 60 years of studying competition, cooperation, and individual efforts. He found that cooperation produced higher achievement than competition in 65 of the 73 studies researched; Cooperation crushed independent work in 108 of the 114 studies. As a model for building success and achieving more, cooperation wins in almost every setting.

Sports psychologist Ogilvie and Tutko profiled 15,000 athletes, finding overwhelming low concern for others, interest in affiliation or support from others, and low need to take care of others. Being ultra-competitive bleeds into our personal lives and has a direct impact on how we see our interpersonal relationships, even outside of the office.

What impact is it having?

In a world where we see everything as a competition, life becomes a zero-sum gain. Several recent studies have shown that competition starts to drive aggression. It is not simply enough to beat your competition, but to become more aggressive toward them. This aggression, much like a virus, starts to spread and permeate other aspects of your life, as well as to infect the culture around you.

Not only does this drive an "us vs. them" culture in our organizations and groups, but it spills out into our non-competitive interpersonal relationships. If you are trained to win at the office, can you really turn that off in how you see your spouse, or your friends?

This also creates a vicious circle in which we perceive others in the same competitive light. Sissela Bok's Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life shows that our pressure to be first - to win - causes us to engage in deceptions and play dirty because we perceive that others are as competitive as we are and are, therefore, more likely to cheat.

What can be done about it?

3 Steps:

Think broadly:

It is easy to focus on yourself and your specific dilemma; to create drama and competition where none really exists. Instead, focus on the greater problem you are trying to solve. What is the good we are trying to create in the world? This relatively simple step of getting outside of your field of vision and seeing the problem much more broadly will give you much needed perspective.

Test your beliefs:

It is easy to rationalize our way to success. The road to ruin is paved with "just this one time" excuses as our way to believe the shortcut, the cheat, is path to win. Our beliefs become stronger as they have been tested. Can you stand-up to bad behaviors at the workplace? Can you not succumb to the "us vs. them" mentality at the company rally? Easy to believe you can, until you actually have to support those beliefs to colleagues.

Stay optimistic:

A day wouldn't be a day if it weren't for at least one good rationalization? It is easy to fall down that slippery slope and just believe that this is always going to be the way. Easy to believe that "this is just how it is now." But there are more people like you than you think. Most people want to believe in creating something better in the world. People are basically good. Help them find a better way to make something amazing - especially one that doesn't cost dancing on the grave of the losers to accomplish it.


Todd Wilms is a marketing executive and a human being living in Silicon Valley. Views expressed are his own, because no one else would own them.


No Contest: A Case Against Competition - Alfie Kohn

Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life - Sissela Bok

Their pain gives us pleasure: How intergroup dynamics shape empathic failures and counter-empathic responses - Cikara, Bruneau, Van Bavel, Saxe

Winning makes people more aggressive toward the defeated - Ohio State University

Problem Athletes and How to Handle Them - Ogilvie and Tutko