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Can embarrassment be a beneficial emotion at work?

Normally, we think of embarrassment as a negative emotion, but it can be valuable, too.

Can embarrassment be a beneficial emotion at work?
[Source illustration: Belopoppa/iStock]

All of us have experienced embarrassment. Perhaps you confidently asserted an answer in school only to find out that you were wrong. Maybe you cut a few corners finishing a work assignment, only to have your shoddy performance revealed. You might have embellished your role in a success only to have others correct the record.

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The emotion of embarrassment is experienced when an error, deception, or transgression is revealed to the public. It is related to the emotions of guilt and shame. Guilt reflects feeling bad about something you did wrong (publicly or privately). Shame is the experience of feeling bad about yourself, because of something you did wrong (publicly or privately). Embarrassment differs from these other two emotions, because it reflects feeling bad about the public knowledge of your error.

Normally, we think of embarrassment as a negative emotion. Certainly, it is painful. In addition, the fear of embarrassment may prevent people from taking social risks at work. For example, a big part of the fear that many people have around public speaking is the prospect that they will give an ineffective talk or have difficulty answering a question and that will lead to embarrassment. But people who avoid chances to speak in public miss out on opportunities to get noticed for their work.

So, should we avoid any chance that someone might be embarrassed in the workplace? Embarrassment has value in helping people to improve their performance—as well as in maintaining the integrity of an organization.

When you get into an embarrassing situation, it focuses your attention on what went wrong. You are likely to replay your actions. That focus gives you the chance to reflect on what you could have done differently. Like many other emotional states, embarrassment also creates motivational energy. That energy can be directed at learning new skills to prevent a similar occurrence in the future.

For example, suppose you were ill-prepared to meet with a client. The client asks a series of questions that you cannot answer, and the client ultimately decides to work with a different company. You might be embarrassed at this failure, particularly when your boss discusses it with you. You can use this energy to learn more about ongoing projects to ensure that you are prepared for future client engagements. Indeed, the memory of the previous embarrassment might also give you energy for new client engagements to ensure that you are prepared.

Organizations can also take advantage of embarrassment to help create an ethical workplace. Research suggests that punishments for ethical violations create embarrassment for people who are called out due to their poor behavior. That sort of attention then helps everyone to act more ethically in the future.

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There have been many high-profile cases of unethical behavior in organizations. A common thread in these cases is that there is a gradual slide in behavior over time. It makes sense: Organizations don’t generally set out to be unethical from the start. Instead, individuals cut corners or engage in petty acts of theft. When those are not punished and individuals in the organization do not suffer any embarrassment, that licenses additional—and often more extreme—ethical lapses.

So it is valuable for organizations to call out ethical issues early rather than sweeping them under the rug to ensure that people across the organization are aware of the potential for embarrassment if they engage in bad behavior.

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