Stuck with low employee engagement? Maybe you have a culture of shame

By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal

My first introduction to the shaming practices in the workplace took place in 1973, the first year after I left graduate school. I had noticed a trend in the promotion history within a certain department and spoke to my boss about it.

He suggested I do further research and prepare a report, which I did. The net result, in which did not point any fingers, simply demonstrated the point I was trying to make.

I discussed my findings with my manager and he decided to send it along to the department in question.

A couple of days later my manager asked me to come to his office and informed that the department I had highlighted had returned the report noting that there was an inconsequential error in my addition in a single column. They told my manager that they appreciated the effort on my part, but could not take the findings seriously knowing that I was so careless with my calculations.

My manager used the incident to educate me in organizational politics. Even though what I was doing was in the best interest of the business, someone obviously felt that accepting my findings made them look bad. What he went on to tell me was that if it had not been for the error in addition the affected department would have found something else to object to. They were sending a message for me/us to mind our own business and when they wanted to hear from us they would let us know. My spirits were dampened to say the least. I thought improvements would be welcomed.

Fast forward to now.

I know managements and ownership in organizations far and wide, small and large, have been struggling with unlocking the secret of employee engagement for many years now. A lot of money has been spent, a lot more is planned to be spent but the history would suggest that quite possibly we’ve been looking in the wrong places with the efforts to date. Much of what gets pointed to are environmental factors, quality of working assignments, flex time, work at home options and the like.

In looking for a new way to address employee engagement maybe we should or could consider the relational factors as well as the environmental. Look at the story I shared earlier, or ones from your own experience (since I know you probably have them). What is being described there is something insidious. Organizations have always had politics and will always have politics, right? So just let it go! But take a deeper look.

I am pointing to something more fundamental than just politics; I mean to distinguish practices that have been tacitly endorsed for years intended to maintain the status quo and let people/employees know their place should they ever forget it.

These practices could be lumped under a theme: shaming, and it is so prevalent in many workplaces that no one even recognizes the cost or sees how it undermines any efforts to elevate employee engagement.

Webster’s defines “shame” as follows:

noun a:  a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety in one’s own behavior or position

Brene Brown in “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead,” has this to say about the institutionalized practice of shaming.

“When shame becomes a management style, engagement dies. When failure is not an option we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.”

She goes on to say that shaming practices are often housed in a context of scarcity, e.g. never enough, not good enough, and the like.

Maybe you’ve had the experience or maybe you have perpetrated this act yourself: a goal is set and worked on. When the game is done, the quarter or deadline is over, the results are tallied and come in very close to but not quite to what was originally intended. The results are related to as “not good enough.” Conversations ensue, discussions revolve around the amount we missed our goal by, the mood is dark. As Brene Brown says above, failure is not an option.

I agree that business is somewhat analogous to sports, but it is not the same as sports. In sports there are absolute wins and losses. In business almost all wins and losses are relative because goals are arbitrary. Every mistake, every missed objective is an occasion for learning, innovation or creativity. The 98 out of 100 that we achieve in business is the absolute, the goal was simply what we used to encourage action.

If we want to see our employees engage we need to find ways to acknowledge and learn from the effort, not simply reward or diminish the results.

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