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.

3 Ways To Kill Your Company’s Idea-Stifling Shame Culture
[Photo: Flickr user Michael]

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.