March 28th, 2013

Fast Company: Idea-Stifling Shame Culture


In a recent article for Fast Company, Brené Brown proposes 3 Ways To Kill Your Company’s Idea-Stifling Shame Culture. The article is about how shame at work kills innovation and it’s worth a read. The excerpt below shows specifically how workplace bullying and the shame that comes with it stops companies from thriving.

Recognizing and Combating Shame

Shame–the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging–breeds fear. It crushes our tolerance for vulnerability, thereby killing engagement, innovation, creativity, productivity, and trust. And worst of all, if we don’t know what we’re looking for, shame can ravage our organizations before we see one outward sign of a problem.

A stroll through an office or a school won’t necessarily reveal a shame problem. Or at least we hope it’s not that obvious. If it is–if we see a manager berating an employee or a teacher shaming a student–the problem is already acute and more than likely has been happening for a long time. In most cases, though, we have to know what we’re looking for when we assess an organization for signs that shame may be an issue.

Blaming, gossiping, favoritism, name-calling, and harassment are all behavior cues that shame has permeated a culture. A more obvious sign is when shame becomes an outright management tool. Is there evidence of people in leadership roles bullying others, criticizing subordinates in front of colleagues, delivering public reprimands, or setting up reward systems that intentionally belittle, shame, or humiliate people?

A Bully In The Office

The Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI) defines bullying as “Repeated mistreatment: sabotage by others that prevented work from getting done, verbal abuse, threatening conduct, intimidation, and humiliation.” A 2010 poll conducted by Zogby International for WBI reported that an estimated 54 million American workers (37 percent of the US workforce) have been bullied at work. Furthermore, another WBI report revealed that 52.5 percent of the time, bullied workers reported that employers basically did nothing to stop the bullying.

When we see shame being used as a management tool (again, that means bullying, criticism in front of colleagues, public reprimands, or reward systems that intentionally belittle people), we need to take direct action because it means that we’ve got an infestation on our hands. And we need to remember that this doesn’t just happen overnight. Equally important to keep in mind is that shame is like the other “sh” word. Like shit, shame rolls downhill. If employees are constantly having to navigate shame, you can bet that they’re passing it on to their customers, students, and families.

Shame can only rise so far in any system before people disengage to protect themselves. When we’re disengaged, we don’t show up, we don’t contribute, and we stop caring. On the far end of the spectrum, disengagement allows people to rationalize all kinds of unethical behavior including lying, stealing, and cheating.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, March 28th, 2013 at 8:00 am and is filed under Media About Bullying. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.



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  1. yeskia says:

    There is a fine line between ‘shame’ and ‘false accusations’, and when either are realized, it’s too late, the deed is done.
    Manipulation, sabotage, and innuendo are very subtle forms of shame bullies use, so that there isn’t a direct link back to them, and like most cowards, they hide behind ‘policy and procedure’, or ’employee rules’ as they like too call it.
    Innovation, ideas, creativity and vision, scare bullies. Bullies fear anything that is not like them, and target’s are typically not like them.
    Unless one has experienced being bullied, then one cannot fully appreciate or understand the devastation and trauma bullying causes.
    Until we change our perceptions of interpersonal relationships and treat each other with respect and civility, bullying will continue unabated.

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