After I posted “Leadership and Shame” on August 14th, I noticed other related articles appeared. Samatha S. Hall posted “Co-dependency and Relationships,” regarding the way shame translates into problematic coping mechanisms. Kate Nasser published “Leading & Inspiring Through Shame?” about avoiding the temptation to shame others as a motivational technique. And Vincent Nix shared some vulnerable personal stories about the upside and complexity of shame in “In Praise of Shame.” So perhaps this is a topic whose time has come! The lessons from these posts seem to be:
• Some shame is healthy. To notice and own a mistake openly and with a sense of personal responsibility and compunction is a learning event — not a bad thing.
• Our defenses against shame are highly individualized around our conditioning. To explore shame organizationally, we must also examine it personally.
• Shame easily can be misused as a tool to undermine and erode people — we need to avoid rationalizing or ignoring this behavior — it’s simply not motivational or ethical.
• We often cope with shame either through developing co-dependency or through aggressive blaming of others.
For me, the most important work we need to do with the dominating, toxic aspects of shame is to consider how deeply they are built into our organizational systems and cultures. Structurally, there are voids that shame and shaming fill. These are often unconscious, almost invisible applications. We see fear, anxiety, unassertiveness, lack of confidence and self-esteem. But what we don’t notice is the role shame may play in all of it behind the scenes.
Looking back over thirty years of organizational experience, when I use this lens I see things a little differently, particularly the conflicts between leaders and their teams. For instance, I worked with a new supervisor extensively who despite his soft demeanor became feared and deeply disliked by those reporting to him. As I reflect today, the supervisor wasn’t someone to be afraid of, particularly (although people complained about that), but he did shame people in a variety of ways and this caused intense, debilitating anxiety. Mostly, despite the “niceness,” he communicated that people should do what he said because he was smarter, more experienced, knew the “right way.” Soft-spoken and friendly, but always a notch above others and therefore resistant to advice and feedback and real understanding, he always had an explanation.
Or I think of another manager who felt she had been deeply wronged by her team, and — almost as a crusade — set out to critique every one of her employees for incompetence and “poor attitudes,” running them all off “her” team — though hers was the poorest attitude of all.
Or another case: a CEO who when frustrated with circumstance would call a colleague to his office to be berated and humiliated; the CEO then so exhausted from the exchange he needed to lie down on his office couch for a nap.
I think of the manager who felt shamed by an aggressive staff member trying to defend her job and so gave her a searing, but non-specific evaluation that seemed to communicate only one central message: “you are stupid.”
And finally, as one last example, the C-Suite executive whose failure to follow through on promises came with a well-known undertone: “I own you anyway, no matter what I do.” Indeed, this last shaming message is the most subtle and most penetrating of all. By saying nothing about the broken promise, he might as well have said, “I disrespect you and your expectation that I can be held to any agreement to treat you well or let you actually influence my thinking.” He was a not-so-subtle terrorist who held each of his reports captive, or, if they didn’t go along, was known to cut them loose with effusive (but derogatory) praise.
As I look back, increasingly I see a dimension from mild embarrassment to dread in peoples’ behaviors. And I see how the focus of understanding has been on the anxiety associated with the behaviors — the fear leading to a cyclic, never-ending assumption that people simply ought to have more self-esteem, outright confidence, deliberate courage. But I wonder now if that is really so. The systemics point again and again to organizations where shaming is a convenient method of control, justified as a business or managerial or executive privilege (and maybe obligation) — in essence, part of the culture. The need for courage is true in a sense, but I wonder if it’s really the right kind, ready to actually address the true dynamics of organizational shaming rather than being viewed as solely “a personal issue.”
Our organizations, suddenly lit up with this light, look less like sweat shops than shame-and-control shops, places where those who get ahead are exactly the people who are immune, meaning they are either genuinely enlightened or just mildly sociopathic, having learned to dismiss healthy, human shame as an unnecessary personal hindrance and maybe a sign of weakness.
I struggle to understand this world. Maybe I’m becoming one bubble off, lost in a negative fantasy. I look into myself and I can see how shame also operates for me as a consultant, how I get trapped when someone contradicts my direction or knowledge or advice, how easy it is for me to suddenly feel quite vulnerable and therefore not quite sure enough to stand up in the way I aspire to. Aren’t I like those very leaders? Indeed! Such challenge! Others count on me to help change the nature of their organization! And can I do it? Can I?
And, oh so much pretense in this business! So many pretending we know! Pretending but with unspoken holes within us. Pretending to have some inside knowledge, some technique to change it all. Lord, how I get sick of the marketing and everything it does to us. May I express this outrage as something we have done to ourselves?
I am committed, as I am sure you are, too, to creating an environment, finally, of emotional freedom. To be free of the chains. The goal isn’t some phoney form of organizational optimism and conformity happiness, but working deeply and spiritually from the core, from the truth, without this dross and baggage, this fear or anger, this performance shame. The goal is to stop seeing weakness where there is actually strength, to create a heart and soul in what we do, to fly in the face of being disposable, to overcome the epidemic.
Enough! We owe it to ourselves and all those who follow to get unhooked — permanently.
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