Shame on you

Shame boyShame is one of those big, ugly words. It implies that detestable, dishonorable and hugely embarrassing acts have been committed. Unlike embarrassment, shame is much more painful. Making a mistake can be embarrassing. Doing something immoral or disgraceful is shameful.

Carmen and I have written a lot about how uncomfortable it is to be a rebel at work, asking frank questions and suggesting new approaches that upset “business as usual.”

But we were truly taken aback during a recent workshop when we asked people about their biggest fears and so many started talking about SHAME. One, and then two and then several people said that their bosses had made them feel shameful for speaking up about issues in their workplaces.

Social scientists have done extensive research around the issue of why employees fear speaking up, coining terms like Organizational Silence, the Mum Effect, and the Spiral of Silence. (See the book “Voice and Silence in Organizations.”)

Despite the awareness of the problem and its causes, this fear of speaking up at work remains pervasive. Not because people are afraid of looking dumb or making people (and themselves) feel uncomfortable.

But because they are made to feel shameful by their bosses.

The Shame Game jpeg

The sad fact is that most people who speak up at work CARE about their organization more than most. They want to make things better. To consciously or unconsciously make them feel that speaking up is a disgraceful, improper act feeds a culture of fear and silence.

And no amount of money spent on employee engagement is going to fix that.

Perhaps managers’ 360 feedback surveys should ask questions like:

  • What do I do to make people feel comfortable raising uncomfortable issues about our organization?
  • How fearful are you about raising uncomfortable issues with me? (1 to 10 scale)
  • How often, if ever, have I made you feel guilty about speaking up and raising unpopular views?

And perhaps it’s time to write down questions  and comments that fly around the workplace that imply shame. Keep a list, and then share it with your boss or the corporate ombudsman or HR to have an honest conversation.

  • Why can’t you be a team player like everyone else around here? What’s your problem?
  • Do you really have to bring this up again? Why can’t you just let it go? All you’re doing is causing trouble and diverting us from our real work.
  • You should know better. Really, at your age and at this point in your career it’s kind of shocking that you can’t understand how the business really works.
  • You’re kidding me, right? You actually think that…

If we really care about our organizations, we’ll continue to suggest ways to improve – however uncomfortable they may be.

We rebels may also have to be the ones to raise the need for developing an important organizational behavior: learning how to consider new ideas, without being defensive or resorting to destructive behaviors like shaming people.

And if people refuse to learn this skill and continue to make us feel shameful? Well, that’s a signal that it’s time to find a new job.