How can we collectively welcome, cultivate and exemplify the type of leadership this world desperately needs when we perpetuate the story ‘you are not good enough’? How can we as a species create a better world, solve the greatest challenges of our time – like global warming, violent conflict, violence against women – and learn to love our neighbor when we can’t even tolerate ourselves?
It was when I was working in the health care system, that I really started to see the impact of shame in organizations. The hospital I was at was initiating a system-wide shift to adopt a culture of safety. I realized, you can’t talk about accidents without talking about shame. You can’t talk about failure without talking about shame. You can’t talk about safety without talking about shame.
This is not unique to health care, though error in a medical setting may indeed have tragic results. At your place of work, do you ever wonder if you are performing good enough? Feel stressed about being worthy of a promotion? Become extremely anxious about making a mistake? Cover up failures? Have ‘who do you think you are’ moments? Try to ‘look’ like you are working rather than actually working? Try to appear successful rather than genuinely feel successful? All this worry takes up time, energy, focus, attention and resources.
I often ask clients, “If you let go of shame, what would you stop doing? What would you start doing?” Would you stop pretending to be someone you are not? Stop sweating before every weekly meeting? Would you start enjoying work more? Enjoying your family more? What would you do with all that time, energy, focus attention and resources you reclaimed? I dare you to find out.
Here are some common examples of what shame might look like in an organization:
- an employee is constantly late
- there was an accident that had a significant impact on other people (for example a product recall)
- confidential information was released to the wrong person
- addressing performance improvement with an individual or team
- not reaching business goals
- missing a promotion
If you’ve never had a shame conversation, Brene Brown’s TED Talk video is a great place to start understanding shame and the effect it can have on you, your team and your organization. Talking about mistakes, performance and failure takes bravery and vulnerability. Since opening up to invite shame into a conversation isn’t easy, here are some tips to navigate the process.
1) Know your intentions. What do you want to get out of the conversation? Be honest. What do you want? What do you need? Answer these questions and then share them with the person you are talking to at the beginning of the conversation. You’ll be amazed at how well people respond when your intentions are explicit to them.
2) Know what you observe, think and feel. Don’t get these mixed up. Being able to clearly distinguish your thoughts/judgments, from your observations and your feelings is a critical communication skill, especially for difficult conversations. Also, notice what shame feels like in you. For me, embarrassment and vulnerability tend to make me feel small, but shame tends to make me feel defensive and aggressive.
3) Bring a healthy dose of empathy and understanding. Brene Brown said, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” This does not mean you have to agree with them. Nor does it mean people shouldn’t be held accountable to their actions. It simply means you are seeking to understand their perspective as deeply as possible.