Shame is the single most potent emotion we feel as humans. EVERYONE feels it. We live in a shame-based culture. The media shames us, our bosses and board of directors shame us, and we shame ourselves. It is brutal.
This past week I got up close and personal with shame. I met with a client, and pretty much got my ass handed back to me. I intended to discuss the results of some initial analytic profiling with him, but instead he felt that I had psychically punched him in the gut- and he punched back HARD.
We both left the meeting feeling unseen, unknown, embarrassed, and hostile.
Understand, this guy is incredibly successful. He has built a thriving consulting business, is happily married, and generally is looked at as a leader in his field. But within moments, I had completely unhinged him. So much so, that in an effort to protect himself in the moment, he attacked my worth, my character, and the legitimacy of my work as a physician and coach.
Unintentionally, I had shamed him. He heard my words as an attack on his capacities and felt terribly misunderstood and diminished.
You know Shame. Your heart beats hard, your stomach clenches, your face gets red, and you avoid eye contact. You feel backed into a corner and ready for BATTLE! Whether your response is to flee or to fight, shame is the voice that tells you that you are weak, not perfect, NOT ENOUGH. It is the deeply felt, intensely painful feeling that we are UNWORTHY. And we want to avoid it at ANY cost.
This desire to avoid shame is rooted in our primitive minds. As humans, one of the most important of our basic needs is the need for social connection. When we feel shame, we feel alone -incredibly uncertain and insecure. Why does this matter? The costs are high. Ingenuity, risk-taking, and innovative change are impossible when we are afraid.
“Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where… leaders and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.”
Brene Brown, “Daring Greatly”
So, what do you do?
Vulnerability is one weapon we can wield against shame. Vulnerability is about being transparent in your struggles and in your successes. It is about seeing mistakes as a natural part of innovation and creating space for mistakes to be useful instead of shameful. It is about allowing people to see your uncertainty and instability, and trusting them to move forward with you. The goals of good leadership (originality, engagement, and productivity) are all born from a willingness to be vulnerable. But vulnerability can feel at times like a double-edged sword, especially in business.
In our corporate culture, shame comes from the fear of being perceived as weak or not perfect. Exposing yourself seems counter-intuitive when you are fighting hard to stay at the top of the pack and be the big dog. Likewise, when your subordinates are making mistakes, it is easy to fall into the blame game. “Hey, this is your mistake to correct” can quickly become “What is wrong with you? Can’t you do anything right?” Admitting problems is dangerous, and so instead, we assign blame and bulldoze forward.
“Studies show that when we can acknowledge where we are vulnerable, our chances of adhering to our goals and plans greatly increases.”
Mistakes happen. Deadlines get missed, contracts blown, clients mishandled. But blame is never going to solve problems. From blame comes shame, and a shame-based institutional culture is not effective. Shame just makes people feel bad.
Be reassured. Vulnerability is not about emotional over sharing with co-workers and subordinates. It is not about spilling your guts or bleeding on co-workers. Vulnerablity is about sharing our experiences and feelings with those that have earned the right to hear them.
The challenge is to recognize shame for what is it and to cultivate an organizational culture that refuses to place blame and instead rewards vulnerability. “All innovation comes from a capacity to tolerate mistakes. All mistakes come from a capacity to tolerate failure. In order to tolerate failure you must first be free from shame.”