Lions (Shame), Tigers (Blame), and Bears (Humiliation) – Oh My! (Part 1)

As George Takei would say, “Ohhhhhh Myyyy”. Oh my, indeed. This series of articles is going to explore some of the most prevalent and toxic components of leadership and workplaces. It happens nearly in every company and often without any notice because we simply see it as normal leadership tactics.

I’m going to be pulling some concepts out of different researchers who are experts on these subjects and can lend some well-thought out advice on how we can not only affect change in our own leadership style but also initiate change in the business world at large.

So let’s talk about the elephant first (or rather Lion): Shame.

Brene Brown, author of I thought it was just me (But it isn’t), describes shame in the following definition:


Shame is the intenesly painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging…Shame creates feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection. 


This powerful definition goes to the heart of shame and it’s impact. Yet we often see it used in the workplace (or even in our culture) to effect change. Change that may happen as a way to avoid these unwanted feelings or fears but that ultimately will lead to greater issues down the line.

As Brene Brown stated, shame creates disconnection. That disconnection will from that person to the team, to the customers, and ultimately to you, as a leader.

We run into some large cultural issues regarding shame as tactic. We see it humorized for “cat-shaming” or “dog-shaming” as well as from parents to children in videos. This is a dangerous precedent because it takes away the very real impact that shame creates. Shame ultimately creates a prison for yourself and is something that translates from “I did this thing that was not right” to “I am a bad and awful person”. It is internally created without having a positive external result.

The ways we see this manifested in the workplace is also common:

  • Mistakes are aired out for everyone to see with no constructive feedback or criticism. It is often done without the consent of the person who made the error, adding on shock and humiliation to the shame factor.  An example was given in which a leader pasted a board of “good people” and one of “bad people” who needed to improve. This caused significant fear, self-loathing, and guilt when they ended up on the “bad list”, that they decided to leave or try just enough to not be on either.
  • Reviews are given that lack feedback in a professional or more compassionate manner. Statements such as, “You make a bad leader”, “If you had a degree, you wouldn’t make so many mistakes”, “So and so does it better than you. You aren’t a leader as a result”. When we give criticism that attacks the person or a characteristic about that person such as their race, gender, education level etc.; we then create shame.

Shame is something that can absolutely make or break a leader because everyone experiences it and because it is something we take on internally to such a degree as it can become identity.

If you feel you are a bad leader or if you feel they are a bad employee (not the task but as the person), a self-fulfilling prophesy is likely to follow. We are what we teach others to be and what we teach ourselves to be.

We are taught that we need to be tough, brusque, and aggressive in our leadership to gain results. However, if by doing so, we shame those we are trying to help; we may find that we have no one left to lead.

The next article will discuss why shaming simply does not work and what can be done instead.

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