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Why sorry isn’t the only word

18 August 2015

The article at a glance

We’ve all been there: that moment when we make a mistake so bad we feel embarrassed, humiliated and want the ground to …

paper bag of shame

We’ve all been there: that moment when we make a mistake so bad we feel embarrassed, humiliated and want the ground to swallow us up.

In some situations a simple “sorry” coupled with the immediate opportunity to make amends gets us out of the hole and enables us to move on with our sense of well-being restored. But if we’re at work, and that error lets down our colleagues and costs productivity or profit, the shame can be overwhelming – and lasting.

However, new research from Cambridge Judge Business School reveals there are effective methods of moving on immediately from even the gravest errors without suffering shame at all. And the key is creativity.

Dr Andreas Richter
Dr Andreas Richter

“There are two main aspects to shame,” says Dr Andreas Richter, University Lecturer in Organisational Behaviour and co-author of the research. “The first is the cause – a situation went differently from how we expected it to – and the second is the response, which naturally is the urgent desire to withdraw, to disappear from view. We found that if team environments support creativity and refrain from punishing failure, employees experiencing shame are likely to draw on this negative emotion in order to produce creative outcomes.”

Dr Richter’s work with Helena Gonzalez-Gomez studied 64 teams across all major departments of four major Colombian organisations, interviewing team leaders and asking participants to keep a diary of how their feelings of shame and self-esteem fluctuated over a week. They found that shame can and does spur creativity – but only if their social environment is supportive and encouraging, and employees suppress their instinct to withdraw.

“Although we expect shame to spur creativity, ashamed individuals may find it difficult to come up with novel and useful ideas if their most proximal social environment does not encourage creativity,” says Dr Richter. “Shame is a social emotion arising from interactions with others, and experiencing it makes people concerned about what others think of them. Our natural human reaction is to shut the door and hide away. But team environments that support creativity can provide useful contextual cues to those who might feel ‘shame’ by showing willingness to try new things, even if it’s risky. In other words, they’re suppressing that withdrawal instinct and enabling the person to move on.”

But as well as harming the individual, shame can begin to pervade an organisation, says shame expert June Tangney. “There’s a tight link between shame and anger,” she writes. “Where there is shame, people measure carefully, weigh and assign blame.”

Tangey, Professor of Clinical Psychology at Washington’s George Mason University and who has written extensive works on shame, adds: “In the face of any negative outcome, even if it’s very small, something or someone must be held accountable. There’s no sense of ‘water under the bridge’. There’s more a sense of ‘someone must be to blame and it’s not me, so it must be you!’ That prompts even more shame.”

But how does an organisation shift away from a natural blame game? It’s up to a team leader, or company MD, to foster a shame-free culture, and that can be hard. Lord Browne’s inability to do so saw him quit as CEO of BP in 2006 after he was found to have lied to a court about his sexuality. He later said being gay did not prevent him being an effective leader – but keeping it a secret did.

One of the main challenges to overcoming an organisational shame culture is that too often it is invisible, according to shame specialist Brené Brown. “A stroll through an office won’t necessarily reveal a shame problem,” says the researcher, whose book Daring Greatly: How The Courage To Be Vulnerable Transforms The Way We Lead, is a former New York Times list bestseller.

“We have to know what we’re looking for when we assess an organisation for signs that shame may be an issue,” Brown writes. “Blaming, gossiping, favouritism, name-calling and harassment are all behaviour 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, criticising subordinates in front of colleagues, delivering public reprimands, or setting up reward systems that intentionally belittle, shame, or humiliate people?”

The result, she continues, is that shame “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 organisations before we see one outward sign of a problem.”

But as Dr Richter’s research shows, there is a way out – through creativity. As long as managers can engender an atmosphere where failure really is an option, all individuals – and a company’s productivity – will be healthier as a result.

“Failure only attacks self-esteem if you let it,” he says. “If you do give into that response to deny or walk away – or the social environment makes you do that – you don’t learn. We all need the psychological safety of being allowed to make a mistake. If people are more open to failure – which is something that managers can foster, and lead by example by sharing their own failures – you can create norms in an organisation where failure is not punished but reasoned about. You’re not hiding errors but learning from them, not blaming but understanding what happened.”

The findings echo the views of celebrated US psychologist Robert J. Sternberg, whose famous list of “10 Ways To Get Over Humiliation” included “don’t hide”, “learn from the experience” and “view the crisis as an opportunity”. But in case that all sounds a little simplistic, he also cited the key element without which, says Dr Richter, this has little chance of happening: “Seek out a support network to help you.”

For that environment is the secret. “Managers have it in their power to create a culture where failure can happen safely and on a small scale before the big bang happens,” says Dr Richter. “Companies can do a pilot that may fail, so they can calculate in small failures into future projects so that when they happen, they are not a disaster. And this happens most effectively in creative teams.

“The nature of creativity is a change from the established mode of doing things and therefore, by definition, doing something untried is prone to failure. Indeed, in creative environments failure can be the rule rather than the exception – and therefore it is not just important, but vital for creative organisations to create a forgiving culture.”