Reflections on Shame in the Workplace

Last week I attended my ICF North West Coaching event which included a session by Zoe Cohen (Twitter @ZoeatShine) who has undertaken some interesting research into the culture of shame.

This was an area that is completely new to me and it is fair to say it has dominated my thoughts for most of the week as I have consciously and unconsciously thought about how it applies to me and my work in the area of management development and learning.

Below I have included some of my thoughts based on Zoe’s research (which is in Italics) with my observations following.

The Role of the Manager

  • People using the words should and ought often indicate feelings of shame – As managers we should look out for these words and use open questions to explore why feel people feel the way they do rather than letting it go
  • Chon et all (2017) Shame and self-sufficiency – Shamed participants prefer to work and play alone. Perhaps this could be red flag for managers – are there people in the team who prefer this – is there something behind this. It is important to stress that this desire to work and play alone could be triggered by a number of things and we shouldn’t assume that this is driven by shame.
  • It is okay to be vulnerable in a leadership role by saying we don’t know something – As managers and leaders we sometimes feel like we need to know it all when in fact showing vulnerability will build relationships with the team
  • Love is an underutilised word in leadership when in fact in can motivate an extraordinary amount of energy

Personal Feelings of Shame

  • Bene Brown describes shame as a ‘Fear of Disconnection’ – Humans are social animals – we want to belong, and we want to be part of the group. However – it could be that in revealing something about ourselves we become disconnected as part of the group. For example, I rarely watch TV when it is shown – preferring to Sky Plus everything this means that often I can’t join in conversations about what was on TV last night. A minor but telling piece of disconnection in the workplace
  • We develop our own shame script – A lot of my thinking this week has been around what is in my shame script and why it is in there. For example, the number of times I am embarrassed to admit I am a Manchester United fan (not always the most popular team!) who doesn’t live in Manchester. I usually follow this with a very long and complicated explanation as to why this is which I won’t bore you with here. At work I hate to admit that I can’t manage everything that is on my plate as I feel I should be able to – on a bad day this leads to me working a huge number of hours to get everything done. This is an example of When I become aware, I can’t deal with it – that’s when the shame awareness starts
  • We need to discuss shameful experiences otherwise we only have our own lens to see it through – My first blog was all about how we need a friend at work Maybe the added value of this person is that we need someone we can all be open with who will help us see things from another perspective – an individual who won’t judge us and who will be open and honest with us in return.

Shame and Learning

  • Shame is integral to learning – we have to admit we don’t know everything – As an L&D professional I have heard people say, ‘There’s no point in me attending that – I know everything on that topic’. Yet some of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a facilitator have come from people who have been open to learning and able to admit they need support in an area.
  • Cozolino (2013) Stress created by shame inhibits the neuroplasticity that underlies new learning – I often talk about the brain and how we learn with our connections starting off as wool with new learning and then hardening to string as the learning is embedded. It seems remarkable to me that shame can stop this happening and as facilitators we need to be aware of this to say it’s okay not to know something.
  • Coaches not being able to admit to supervisors when something hasn’t worked out because they are “not wanting the supervisor to see that  part of me’ – I think the same could be true of workshops and coaching itself – if people can’t bring what Zoe terms the ‘dark sticky stuff’ to these activities are we then inhibiting the learning? As Zoe went on to talk about Clients who harbour a considerable amount of shame experience negative therapeutic reactions i.e., they resist recovery and maybe even new learning itself.
  • Beneficial to accept change as a normal thing – seeing it as data for a rich reservoir for learning – Change is often feared and flipping it over to a positive will help embrace change – discussing how we feel and how we process the change could lead to people becoming early adopters.

Zoe also suggested a number of things which have been shown to help based on her research which I have included below

  • Develop self-awareness of our shame well – what are the things that make us feel shame and where does that come from?
  • Be tentative and sensitive when talking about shame – people may be reluctant to talk about it – you may have to tease it out
  • Hahn talks about ‘the therapeutic value of acceptance’- let people know it is okay to talk about it
  • From a coaching perspective choosing an independent supervisor and paying for it means we are able to bring shame out into the open
  • Normalise the fact that not everyone gets it right first time by saying things like ‘We’re only human – we’ve all been through it’ or saying ‘I struggle with this too’
  • Welcome and encourage everyone’s contribution – no matter what it is
  • The more we can get a sense of congruence as an adult and become out true selves and share this with the world – the shame melts away

Lastly – thanks to everyone at ICF North West Coaching for hosting a great event and being so welcoming and friendly especially Jo (Twitter @jo_wright_) and Amy who shared with me some interesting insights on healthcare. And of course, massive thanks to Zoe for her insights, openness and thoughtful responses to the questions asked by the group.

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