How to deal with shame in the workplace
Most people, if asked to identify potential causes of shame in the workplace, could readily name two culprits: the abusive boss and the toxic co-worker. The first bullies those in their employ: the second tries to damage your reputation by spreading rumours or lying to those in charge. Either can make you feel under siege and deeply humiliated.
However, these two scourges, while undoubtedly a problem, don’t account for most of the shame we experience in the workplace. In fact, you may be surprised to learn encounters with shame are quite common, in our personal lives as well as on the job. To understand what that means, you need to shed some preconceptions and expand your views on shame’s nature.
IT’S A FAMILY AFFAIR
Usually, people think of shame as a large and toxic emotion imposed by an intolerant society upon those who differ from the norm. From this perspective, shame is bad. Bestselling works of Brené Brown and John Bradshaw have popularised this view.
In reality, shame is an entire family of emotions that vary in intensity and duration. Self-consciousness, embarrassment, chagrin, guilt, humiliation, shyness, mortification – these are all members of the shame family and they share a painful awareness of self. Researchers who study the biology of emotion agree these feelings have a common physiological response pattern: gaze aversion, a wish to disappear, brief confusion of thought and usually blushing in the face, neck or torso. Emotions in the shame family may be mild and soon forgotten, or deep and enduring, haunting us for days.
So when and why do all of us tend to feel shame? To answer this question, I devised a concept called the “Shame Paradigms” – the four typical situations that give rise to emotions in the shame family.
UNREQUITED LOVE – We feel that “painful awareness of self” whenever our interest in, and affection for, another person
EXCLUSION – We feel bad about ourselves when we’re on the outside of a group we’d like to belong to. We might be left o a desirable team project at work, or colleagues go out for lunch without inviting us. The boss has a select group of favourites that doesn’t include us, and some co-workers we admire are socialising on weekends – without us.
UNWANTED EXPOSURE – We feel painfully self-conscious when something personal we’d like to keep private is unexpectedly revealed, or when we make a mistake in public. The boss singles us out for criticism at a team meeting, a performance review accurately highlights a painful weakness or shortcoming, weekly sales figures place us at the bottom of the team list, and a suggestion at a sta meeting falls at.
DISAPPOINTED EXPECTATION – We feel chagrin when we fall short of our goals or expectations. Someone else gets that promotion we were hoping for, a report we laboured over is dismissed by management or our team’s new product roll-out fails. Worst of all, we’re red.
We may not recognise it, but emotions in the shame family play an outsized role in our daily lives – in the choices we make, the things we do and don’t say, even in our decisions about what to wear. Without realising it, we’re continually trying to anticipate and avoid shame. When criticism of our work product makes us feel bad, we often react in defensive ways to ward off and protect ourselves from shame. By making excuses for ourselves, we deny responsibility and blame someone else for our own shortcomings, or for becoming indignant in the face of criticism.
Some of us voice self-critical remarks to forestall negative feedback from colleagues and gain control over the experience of shame (‘this is a stupid idea …’ or ‘Maybe I’m wrong, but…’). The shaming remark feels less painful and more manageable when we deliver it ourselves.
Avoiding, denying and controlling shame are the three common strategies we use to manage this painful emotion. And all of us are doing it throughout the day, most days of our lives, at work and in our social lives. As managers and supervisors, understanding when and why humans inevitably feel shame allows us to behave in a more sensitive manner, saving the other person from needless pain, avoiding an unpleasant retaliatory attack. Understanding someone’s nearness to shame also enables us to frame criticism in a way that can be heard, a key skill for all those who manage personnel.
For everyone who works alongside other people, an understanding of the Shame Paradigms allows us to anticipate the many ways we may inadvertently shame our colleagues by leaving them out, exposing them in painful ways, or drawing attention to their shortcomings.
Sometimes we have no choice, especially when we’re called upon to deliver necessary criticism. But understanding the shame our comments may arouse will help us to be sensitive critics. Recalling when and why we have felt shame will help us empathise with their pain, to understand and sometimes to make allowance for their defensiveness.
Just remember that emotions in the shame family are common and always painful – for you, for me, and for everyone else we encounter on the job.
BECOME MORE SENSITIVE AT WORK
- Shame is more common than we think. Self- consciousness, embarrassment, chagrin, guilt, humiliation, shyness and mortification are all members of the shame family
- Recall times you experienced unrequited love, exclusion, unwanted exposure or disappointed expectation and focus on times you felt them at work
- Envision ways shame might get stirred up for your colleagues (for example special teams or friendship groups, or shortcomings made public in a way that promotes embarrassment
- Identify co-workers who may avoid encounters with shame by holding back from voicing opinions. How can you help them feel less frightened?
- Before delivering criticism, imagine how you’d feel in their place. How could you soften the blow?
- If you grow defensive in the face of criticism, look for the potential truth, as painful as it might be. Accepting valid criticism will help you grow
Joseph Burgo, Ph.D’s book, Shame, is out now (Macmillan USA, £14.99)