Shame is a pretty powerful emotion.
At its worst, shame can provoke intense feelings of unworthiness and make us feel downright inadequate as human beings. It’s the painful feeling we have about ourselves when we’ve done something we know just isn’t cool, and it can cause us to point the blame at others, to run away and hide from our mistakes, and ultimately, to believe we don’t measure up.
Shame is different than guilt in that guilt is associated with an event.
Guilt says, “I know I shouldn’t have yelled at my spouse, and I feel bad that I did that.”
Shame says, “I yelled at my spouse and because of that, I’m a horrible person.”
Guilt can be beneficial. It tells me I did something wrong and need to change course (and probably make it right, too). Shame, on the other hand, tells me that, as a person, I am wrong.
So, if shame labels me as lazy, socially awkward or stupid, I’m going to start to believe shame’s lies. The result can be pretty detrimental to every area of my life, both personally and professionally.
Shame in the Workplace
The shame game, which has long been a part of human interactions (often seen in parenting and even in marriage relationships), has also crept into another American institution: the workplace. Shame usually pops up in the office in these ways:
- As a management tool to humiliate employees who underperform. This happens more often than we realize. When people in leadership criticize others in front of co-workers or show favoritism to some while belittling others, shame has infiltrated the work environment.
- Between co-workers through finger-pointing and blaming. The stress to always perform well and never make a mistake has created the unproductive office practice of shifting blame. This blame game, while temporarily removing the shame from one employee and heaping it onto the next, creates an unhealthy cycle that never resolves the actual problem.
- As a self-inflicted, internal voice that keeps workers from rising to their potential because they are afraid to be vulnerable and risk failure. When we make a mistake or underperform at work, we speak shame language to ourselves. If this happens often enough, we begin to believe this internal dialog and become immobilized because of it.
Thought leader Brené Brown is an expert on the topic of courage, vulnerability, and shame.
In her book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brené tackles the topic of shame in the workplace head on.
During her research for the book, she uncovered just how unhappy people really are at work because of the cycles of bullying, humiliation, and shaming that permeates our society’s places of business.
She doesn’t beat around the bush in her stance on shame. According to Brené, it is NEVER a favorable practice:
“I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
In the workplace, shame is destructive because it breeds fear that prevents workers from engaging with others freely. It limits interactions and shared ideas. Instead, employees who are at risk of shaming tend to withdraw themselves. They are no longer open to be vulnerable (which is such a crucial characteristic in a creative work environment).
Make a Change
When shame is being used as a management tool in the workplace or to deflect blame from one employee to the next, there’s simply not room to look the other way. This type of hostile office behavior must be dealt with if the company’s integrity is going to remain in tact. But how can one employee change an entire company’s culture?
Look, we’re not idealists here. It may very well be a lost cause. Still, every workplace is different. Before you give up and accept that it’s never gonna change, there are a few things you can do to encourage the management to steer away from the shame and blame atmosphere and into a more positive and productive environment.
- Voice Your Concerns. Some people simply need to hear it straight. If you’ve witnessed shame or blame being used as a tool to manipulate and belittle employees, educate yourself on the harmful effects and talk to management about it.
- Own Your Worth. If you’re the one who’s being shamed, don’t become a victim. In a calm voice, own up to your mistakes. Offer to fix them if you can. Inform your manager that you are human and will continue to make mistakes, but that you still bring a lot to the table. Share all of the positives you bring to the company, but make it clear that you will not be shamed for who you are as a person.
- Know When Enough Is Enough. If, after giving steps one and two a shot, things still aren’t changing, it’s time to say hasta la vista. You spend way too much time at work to put up with destructive shame practices, and they are too damaging to a person’s core to ignore. If your company’s culture is one of shame and blame where workers are not treated with respect, make a plan to secure another opportunity and get the heck out of Dodge.
The workplace can be a hotspot for bringing out feelings of inadequacies in a person. Past failures and the shame associated with those failures, whether personal or professional, can cause workers to have limiting beliefs about what they’re capable of. Even if management isn’t perpetuating the problem, shame can work its way into your thinking and stifle professional growth. Don’t let prior mistakes hinder you. Instead, give yourself permission to be imperfect. The way to let go of this fear is to, as Brené Brown calls it, build a shame-resilience. How?
- Learn to be ok with being wrong. Not only that, but embrace it! If failure is what you’re fearing, shift your thinking to what being open to failure can mean for your professional life. It can be a way to learn something new; it becomes a lesson for growth. With courage, failure can become a path to learning.
- Remember who you truly are — know that you are worthy. You are enough. You are just as capable of succeeding and thriving as the next guy, so stop believing any different.
- Let go of the baggage. No matter what mistakes you’ve made in the past or what shortcomings people have told you that you have, Let. Them. Go. Free yourself from that limiting thinking and embrace the future for what is truly is — a blank slate. You don’t have to carry that weight.
When you can apply these steps to shame-resilience, you’ll be able to put the fear of failure behind you, be vulnerable, and truly shine in your unique abilities.
In the end, happiness in the workplace is within your power. You have the ability to speak up against unhealthy shaming practices, to deflect negative comments directed at you, and to trade harmful self-beliefs for those that are positive.
Have you experienced shame in the workplace? Tell us about it in the comments!