Monthly Archives: October 2018

Shame & Blame in the Workplace


I’ve written about the Corporate Bully, the Four Fatal Fears, and Feedback; this blog is about what Dr. Brené Brown refers to as “creativity scars.” These scars stem from shame and blame. Brown’s research uncovered that approximately half of her research participants could specify a particular childhood incident at school when they were told how they were “not good” at something creative. What is even more alarming is that the vast majority of her subjects considered the incident as influential enough to shape how they viewed themselves as learners.

This is not to suggest that every child should be given a trophy and be led into false impressions that they are the next Picasso, Streisand, Hemmingway, or Slash. This is about smashing the marble that child-aged Michelangelo claimed contained an angel. Here is a case in point:

When my younger son was in 1st grade, his teacher set out to teach the students how to create a holiday house. It was the first time I had opted to make an appearance as a parental assistant. The teacher was explicit and clear in her instructions for each step of piecing the Hanukkah or Gingerbread home together. As I peered over the shoulder of my son, I noticed that the little girl next to him did not place the door and window according to how the teacher instructed. When the teacher came along to check on this “joyous” seasonal work, she stopped at the girl in front of me, furrowed her brows and loudly voiced in a tone that sounded like condemnation, “You put the window and door on WRONG! I TOLD you HOW to do it! How could you MESS that up?!” As the girl cowed her head, the room became perfectly still. It was a bully moment. Already close to the contemptuous source, I leaned in, looked her straight in the eye, and measuredly responded with steely resolve, “I did it.” (It was my succinct way of communicating: Pick on someone your own size). The teacher winced, seemingly aware that I was just a cover for the girl’s “artistic deviance,” and turned away without a word.

How does yelling at a child during a holiday project help that child learn to love learning? Creativity? School? Who will stand up for her or with her when she is publicly shamed?

Here is how a leader can deal effectively with these “strays” from instruction:

  • 1:1. Counsel the individual privately.
  • Seek to understand. Ask: What led you to place the door there?
  • Do a leadership check. Ask yourself: What more could I do that would ensure all are following?
  • Be like bamboo. Remain flexible in your instruction and consider some room for bending.
  • Encourage collaboration. Buddy system learning goes farther than going alone.

Workplace Scenario

Oftentimes, those who lead departments are so fixated on results, like the abovementioned teacher, that they fail to see how their own experience with shame has led them to re-create a system and culture of fear involving shame and blame.

These divisional heads push themselves, and consequently others, hard because someone in their past led them to feel that they were not “good enough.” It is their unfinished business. Sometimes, the fighters carry the pain forward, yet manage to lead productively and with compassion. I’m referencing the fighters who carry the pain forward and take a sadistic pleasure towards humiliating, or attempting to humiliate, particular employees. It is usually self-loathing that leads the manager to feel a momentary sense of power when shaming and blaming others.

The “stray” employee’s behavior serves as a trigger to the manager that s/he is not “good enough” at what they do (i.e. managing) or are supposed to do, and they’ll be darned if they get shamed again. It is a reflex action, or a reaction…which is re-enacting an event that caused them so much pain, the indelible mark it left has become a part of how that person shows up at work, and usually also at home.

Some ways that “shame” manifests “not good enough” behavior outside of the workplace may include the following:

  • Iron Man*. Competing to prove strength, often considered as synonymous with power.
  • Marathon*. Could be a subconscious effort to out-run something (i.e. memory) or someone (i.e. feeling).
  • Addiction. A (temporary) way to cope, distract, or numb other feelings away.
  • Constant criticism. A way to place others at a lower level in order to elevate one’s self away from a sense of unworthiness.
  • No apologies. No admission of fault or contribution is a way to avoid shame.

I’ve also heard, “But, the CEO needs someone who can handle the tough conversations that need to be done!” Yes, a strong leader is one who practices self-awareness, accountability, compassion, constructive feedback, and curiosity while handling the tough and difficult conversations which need to be done. Accepting a divisional head / manager who revels in shame and blame is only going to lead to loss of innovative talent, create a culture of fear, and contribute towards a belief system that the only functional leader is a dysfunctional person. That’s what we call negative reinforcement.

Build a better working world. Collude towards the positive.

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” —Maya Angelou

*This is not to say all top athletes are pushing themselves to such levels out of a feeling of “not good enough.” It is a possible variable out of several.

Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, a bully neutralizer, and the founder of Corporate Looking Glass, LLC – a diverse consultancy of OD experts and strategic thinking partners. We increase retention. Visit

© Rossina Gil, 2018

Source: Brené Brown, Ph.D. Rising Strong, 2015, pg 83.