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3 Ways To Kill Your Company's Idea-Stifling Shame Culture

Proposing ideas makes people feel vulnerable—so it's in innovation's interest to create a culture that's secure.

In 2010 I had the opportunity to spend a long weekend with fifty CEOs from Silicon Valley. One of the other speakers at the retreat was Kevin Surace, the then CEO of Serious Materials, and Inc. magazine's 2009 Entrepreneur of the Year. I knew Kevin was going to speak about disruptive innovation so in my first conversation with him, before either one of us had spoken to the group and before he knew about my work, I asked him this question: What's the most significant barrier to creativity and innovation?

Kevin thought about it for a minute and said, "I don't know if it has a name, but honestly, it's the fear of introducing an idea and being ridiculed, laughed at, and belittled. If you're willing to subject yourself to that experience, and if you survive it, then it becomes the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong. People believe they're only as good as their ideas and that their ideas can't seem too ‘out there' and they can't ‘not know' everything. The problem is that innovative ideas often sound crazy and failure and learning are part of revolution. Evolution and incremental change is important and we need it, but we're desperate for real revolution and that requires a different type of courage and creativity."

To reignite creativity, innovation, and learning, leaders must rehumanize work. This means understanding how scarcity—a feeling of never having enough—is affecting the way we lead and work, learning how to engage with vulnerability, and recognizing and combating shame.

Make no mistake: Rehumanizing work requires courage. Honest conversations about vulnerability and shame are disruptive. The reason that we're not having these conversations in our organizations is that they shine light in the dark corners. Once there is language, awareness, and understanding, turning back is almost impossible.

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.

The Blame Game

Here's the best way to think about the relationship between shame and blame: If blame is driving, shame is riding shotgun. In organizations, schools, and families, blaming and finger- pointing are often symptoms of shame. Shame researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing explain that in shame-bound relationships, people "measure carefully, weigh, and assign blame." They write, "In the face of any negative outcome, large or small, someone or something must be found responsible (and held accountable). There's no notion of ‘water under the bridge.' " They go on to say, "After all, if someone must be to blame and it's not me, it must be you! From blame comes shame. And then hurt, denial, anger, and retaliation."

Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we're uncomfortable and experience pain—When we're vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving. There's nothing productive about blame, and it often involves shaming someone or just being mean. If blame is a pattern in your culture, then shame needs to be addressed as an issue.

Toward A Rehumanized Culture

When the culture of an organization mandates that it is more important to protect the reputation of a system and those in power than it is to protect the basic human dignity of individuals or communities, you can be certain that shame is systemic, money drives ethics, and accountability is dead.

In an organizational culture where respect and the dignity of individuals are held as the highest values, shame and blame don't work as management styles. There is no leading by fear. Empathy is a valued asset, accountability is an expectation rather than an exception, and the primal human need for belonging is not used as leverage and social control. We can't control the behavior of individuals; however, we can cultivate organizational cultures where behaviors are not tolerated and people are held accountable for protecting what matters most: human beings.

We won't solve the complex issues that we're facing today without creativity, innovation, and engaged learning. We can't afford to let our discomfort with the topic of shame get
in the way of recognizing and combating it.

The three best strategies for building shame-resilient organizations are:

  1. Supporting leaders who are willing to dare greatly and facilitate honest conversations about shame and cultivate shame-resilient cultures.
  2. Facilitating a conscientious effort to see where shame might be functioning in the organization and how it might even be creeping into the way we engage with our co- workers and students.
  3. Normalizing is a critical shame-resilience strategy. Leaders and managers can cultivate engagement by helping people know what to expect.
What are common struggles? How have other people dealt with them? What have your experiences been? Tell us about it in the comments below.

Excerpted from Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Published by Published by Gotham Books. Copyright (c) Brené Brown, 2012.

[Photo: Flickr user Michael]

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  • LionsDen

    The article sounds good, and I can appreciate the approach attempting to be applied and my desire to see that work is very high. However, there comes a time in which change and innovation is required to survive in an age where economies are in disarray and budget cuts have been implemented and still looming on the horizon.
    In this situation, as a young executive entering into an organizational culture that has been infested with bullying, shame, and blame is like walking into the lion's den being tasked to be the lion tamer with no chair and no whip, because the chair and the whip may be seen or perceived as being too harsh or abusive.
    Having those honest conversations and providing clear expectations and attempting to keep people accountable to making the necessary changes is no picnic. The perception of those being made to be accountable is that their innovation and creativity is being stifled. Yet it is that same perceived "creativity and innovation" that had been implemented that has stifled progress and change. It's like the character in Spencer Johnson's fable, "Who Moved My Cheese" that continues to wish that the cheese would return and ultimately meets his demise. People get locked into a particular dogma and cannot see things any other way. Now multiply this by 10 and you have my debacle.
    I want to promote what the article suggests, and believe in the tenents being described in regard to promoting creativity and innovation. I also realize that a bad idea sugarcoated, polished, and wrapped up with a nice still a bad idea. The subsequent result is the undermining efforts and more blame games, and counter-accusations of bullying.
    By the way...we have Unions involved that "protect" the status quo in this situation.
    Nevertheless, I will continue to push on and take the hits for the greater good of the organization to complete what I have started...being fully aware that shining the light in the dark corners will be disruptive and uncomfortable, but must be done to achieve a more positive and desirable result.

  • HopingForChange

    It's not the light shined in the corner that's the problem, but rather what the cockroaches do when the light comes on.  Ghandi was on to something when he said that we need to "be the change we want to see in the world."  What that might cost, however, is the true measure of courage.  From Kingdom of Heaven, Balian kneeling before his father, "Always speak the truth, even if it leads to your own death."  Easier said than done, I know, because livelihoods, families, depend on incomes.

    But that just brings us full circle to the issue of shame in the workplace . . .

  • Ben Simonton


    I have been in several of the situations you describe. I succeeded quickly and in spades because of using the tactics I described in my first post - ask your people what they need to do a better job and then help them to get it if it is at all reasonable. Don't issue orders except to help fix things they want fixed. It is all about meeting their five basic needs: to be heard, to be respected, and to have competence, autonomy and relatedness (doing things well with others, a team). If you want some assistance if only to strengthen your resolve and talk to a person who has been down your road, give me a call.

    Best regards, Ben

  • Ruben Ocampo

    I agree with all the points you made. Yet, as I'm reading Steve Jobs' biography, I wonder what to make of it all. He was clearly a bully, and a person that used shame as a motivator to push his people for greatness. I don't agree with this approach, but it definitely worked for Apple.

  • Loop

    Where do you draw the line between "blame" and speaking truth and holding people accountable for their actions?  Those in denial will always feel like they are being blamed when in fact truth is being spoken and they are being held accountable for their actions.  Our society continues to move away from personal accountablity - it's always someone elses fault.  And, what ever happened to constructive criticism?  Some of the best products are those ideas that have been criticized and wrestled with - it's part of the process and should be expected.  I agree that there is no place for shame, but this article takes it too far.  Is there no such thing as a bad idea that has no market and no way of being successful?  Yes, we need to fail and learn from our mistakes but does it have to be after millions have been spent on a bad idea and the idea dies because there are no sales?  Sounds like bad business management to me

  • Ben Simonton

    You voice perhaps the most important issue facing executives today. They face it because they have been using a form of the traditional top-down command and control approach to managing people. I would like to provide what an executive must do to gain excellence from all employees and do away with fear. Call it autonomy and support v command and control. Control gets you compliance while autonomy gets you engagement.

    Management is responsible for supporting employees with training, tools, parts, material, information, direction, discipline, planning, and the like. The quality of this support dictates, repeat dictates the level of performance of employees. Stephen Covey wrote that the possible performance gain is 500%.

    How does an executive ensure that the quality of support is the highest? The only way is to ask the users of that support and respond to what they say "to their satisfaction". Is this not exactly what you must do in order to serve your external customer with the very best products and services? So you must give the customers of your support more than enough opportunity to voice their complaints, suggestions and questions and you must be very open, honest, and above board with your responses.

    If you choose to not listen or not respond to their satisfaction, they will conclude that you don't respect them and will treat their work, their customers, each other, and their bosses with the same level of disrespect. If you choose to give them lots of orders, you will likewise have treated them with disrespect and will suffer the consequences. If you choose to play your cards close to your vest, they will likewise not be open and will not share what they know with others or with you.

    On the other hand, if you give them outstanding support, they will be able to decide what to do, when to do it, and how to do it and will feel the great joy of being autonomous, being their own person and knowing they are a valuable, valued and trusted member of the company team. They will be so thankful for having been treated so well, far better than they had ever expected, that they will unleash everything they have on their work: all their creativity, innovation, productivity, experience, effort, enthusiasm, knowledge, etcetera, etcetera. They will do this at work and after work they will try to figure out ways to do a better job at work.

    So that is the script for gaining the 500% performance gain Covey tells us is possible. I know he is right because I have done it several times. It not only is simple and easy to do, it is personally rewarding beyond my ability to express. But if you are wedded to top-down command and control, you can't achieve it and are your own worst enemy.

  • Cedricj

    Social conformity is one of the most insidious and powerful factors that kills creativity and shapes behavior. And that conformity is often enshrined in a corporate culture. 

    The solutions you provide are right on target. I would add the following.

    1. Let the "emperor has no clothes"(shaming culture) awareness come from the very top of the organization.
    2. Reward those who devise paradigm shifting ideas.
    3. Aim at diversity in the workforce
    Inspiring leaders to inspire others

  • Jeff

    Hey Ced - Which article was the Social Conformity originally stated? I know I read it - can't find it now for a cite... I enjoy your blog - thanks!

  • Peter Brown

    Just take a minute and review the identification grid for a sociopath, try and remember the last time you worked with such an animal, there is your definition of what can go horribly wrong in a company:
    Diagnostic Criteria (DSM-IV)
    1. Since the age of fifteen there has been a disregard for and violation of the right's of others, those right's considered normal by the local culture, as indicated by at least three of the following:
    A. Repeated acts that could lead to arrest.
    B. Conning for pleasure or profit, repeated lying, or the use of aliases.
    C. Failure to plan ahead or being impulsive.
    D. Repeated assaults on others.
    E. Reckless when it comes to their or others safety.
    F. Poor work behavior or failure to honor financial obligations.
    G. Rationalizing the pain they inflict on others.

    2. At least eighteen years in age.

    3. Evidence of a Conduct Disorder, with its onset before the age of fifteen.

    4. Symptoms not due to another mental disorder.

  • F. Williams

    Everything starts at the top; the leader of a group, department or company sets the tone and culture. All to often the person in charge is insecure and struggling to be "important", and their behavior manifests as over-control of others through criticism and ridicule about ideas or project concerns, especially in front of a group. Companies are full of "managers" that actually have no clue how to manage other people, and often want the executive title for their own prestige, and therefore poorly manage others. Over the years we've all heard that ridiculous concept of "manage your boss" or "manage up". Anybody who has to do this with their boss has no boss in reality, more like a camoflaged hole in the chain of command. Peoiple who know they can't manage rarely admit it and they are the ones who end up stifling creativity and lowering morale in an area. Look around, I'll bet everybody that reads this knows a boss in their company like this. There is the real source of your morale and confidence problems: People assigned to manage that can't.

  • Smlinnen

    So what are people supposed do when the head of the organization is the bully, and he can't be removed? When not only regular employees, but even managers are ridiculed, berated or otherwise shot down for trying to stand up and do the right thing? It's not exactly easy-- or even possible--to stage a mutiny.

  • Rich

    In a word...leave.  You can't change the bully boss and he has most of the power.  Don't kid yourself that you can.  Vote with your feet.

  • ebhp

    Great article, thank you.  The underlying philosophy here is similar to the "Yes, and...." approach within the improv community.  Basically, you build off of each other's ideas rather than saying "Yeah, but..." which has a negative connotation.  The unfortunate reality is that many leaders of today have risen to the top of the ranks precisely because they're bullies.  Our society often rewards that.  Steve Jobs is heralded as the greatest businessman of the 20th/21st century, but he wasn't exactly a shame-free guy.  Again, a great article.  I look forward to reading the book.

  • Shep Hyken

    The company’s culture must support ideas coming from employees.
    That is where many of the great innovations come from. Some of our clients
    actually require everyone to submit suggestions on a regular basis (sometimes
    weekly). All employees get positive feedback on their ideas. If the ideas are
    used, then the employee is recognized. Regardless of the merit of the idea,
    everyone is praised for participating. Everyone is engaged and feels

  • GiantUglyBagofMostlyWater

    Creators, inventors, and innovators are PRECISELY those people who overcome without special effort barriers of shame, politics, bad culture around them---they are unstoppable.   People stopped by that sort of stuff are too delicate to last anyway.   It takes a certain toughness to deal with this world and see things through and those turned away by shame and embarrassment, politics and backstabbing, are unwilling to BE in the world, much less be changers of it.