Nothing improves when shame enters the room. No one’s performance, loyalty, commitment, energy, focus or skills benefit from shame. Shame is the tool of an abuser. I have seen incredibly competent, hardworking, brilliant people crippled by poor leadership. Feedback and high standards should be investments and in excellence, not tools of punishment. An environment of shame and fear doesn’t merely limit growth and contribution – it diminishes people.
I was once speaking for a CEO advisory group when one of the CEO’s boasted, “I tell it like it is. I don’t have time to worry about people’s feelings. If they don’t like it, they can leave.” You can tell the truth with humanity. You can strive for excellence and still care about people. These things aren’t mutually exclusive and finding people that will endure your criticism doesn’t mean they’re the best people for the job or that their tolerance improves their performance. You’ll merely get tolerant people who are more willing to accept bad management. Because that’s what shaming is – simply bad leadership skills. If you cannot find another way to communicate, you aren’t developing professionals or advancing your objectives, you’re merely venting your frustrations.
I had a client who worked with a partner who delivered feedback with a heavy dose of shame, “If you think this is acceptable work product, then you should find another job.” “I’m not here to make you feel good about yourself. This is how you learn. If you want someone to be nice to you, go make friends on your own time.” Even if the feedback itself was relevant, the shame destroyed its utility because no one is motivated or made better by shame. As a leader you have a responsibility to create a legacy of confident, competent people who rise to their greatest potential. No one rises to their ultimate potential when they are shamed.
I’ve never met someone who said, I lost a lot of weight because my mother or partner kept shaming me. They might develop an eating disorder but they aren’t going to make healthier choices from being shamed to be thin. I’ve also never met a writer who claims that he or she is better because a teacher shamed them for their unoriginal ideas and lack of talent. I have met lots of writers who quit because of shame and lots of attorneys who have left the law and lots of executives who landed in emergency rooms with panic attacks or heart attacks from relentless micro management and destructive criticism.
“Shame keeps us small, resentful and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where parents, 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
There’s a weird kind of ego attachment to cultivating a reputation of being tough to work with or being able to endure someone who is tough. No one really questions whether it’s effective or useful. Why is it that high standards are so deeply tied to shaming people to reach those standards? Don’t get me wrong. High standards, innovation, and excellence are great things but getting there by sacrificing human decency seems unimaginative and cheap. It’s easy to blame and shame but it’s harder to understand, teach, coach and mentor.
It takes compassion, skill, thought, patience, and yes, more time to treat someone with dignity when you are most frustrated or even angry. It requires conscious leadership to disrupt shaming practices. I have heard too many leaders suggest that the current generation simply isn’t tough enough and they’re “too precious” but what if they simply aren’t tolerant? What if the current generation of contributors simply won’t allow anyone to shame them and merely want to be treated with more dignity? Just because you were shamed, doesn’t mean the practice is good for anyone.
We’re oddly nostalgic around shame. People like to share stories of how they survived someone’s rage as if it’s a badge of honor. It’s not. We can all do better. We can be more thoughtful about feedback, more deliberate about our language and tone, and invest in people through positive leadership. It’s a skill and a choice that demand a higher level of commitment.
Having a high standards is good. One of my favorite English professors in college, Dr. Olmstead would say, “You never get a higher result by lowering the bar.” I believe that’s true. But we conflate high standards with a reason to abuse people when they fail to meet those standards and those are two distinct issues. If we truly want excellence, innovation, autonomy, commitment, and loyalty then we need to develop leadership skills that nurture rather than dismantle those we lead. Humanity is not weakness, it’s critical for longevity and professional development.
Ann marie Houghtailing is a speaker and writer. Her speaker’s reel can be viewed at https://annmariehoughtailing.com/speaking/
Her writing has appeared in Washington Post, Huffington Post, Daily Worth, Yahoo! Finance, XO Jane, Catalyst, Thought Catalogue and San Diego Business Journal.