The Cost of Shame in Organizational Change

by Sep 16, 2019

  • Shame can be the result of a lack of self-compassion.
  • Mindfulness without self-compassion is a temporary fix.
  • Compassion is the antidote to shame.

A couple of weeks ago, I was very fortunate to attend a Mindful Self Compassion Skills training course in Brisbane with Dr Christopher Germer and Tina Gibson. And while at the outset this would seem like a course that is about personal benefits, my motivation for going was two-fold:  I had been noticing a pattern in my lack of self-compassion and speed to be judgmental about myself, and I was seeing an increasing frequency of these behaviours in the leaders I work with. 

Through their studies, Dr Christopher Germer and his research partner Dr Kristen Neff have created a treasure trove of resources and are now training in mindful self-compassion, and I am glad to have experienced their expertise firsthand. 

The Mindful Self-compassion Program books by Germer and NeffGermer’s work first came to my attention while researching for my ‘Remaining Human’ keynote. In that talk I posed that there are five qualities that act as an antidote to the increasing lack of humanness in our worlds of escalating change. 

The component at the core each of those qualities is self-compassion. If you can’t do self-compassion, you can’t do empathy, you can’t do vulnerability, you certainly can’t do courage, and the judgment negates curiosity. 

Initially I had thought that mindfulness was one of the five qualities. However, it was through Germer and Neff’s work that I understood that they see mindfulness as one side of a two-sided coin – hence mindful self-compassion. They distinguish mindfulness as focusing on the acceptance of the experience, while self-compassion is focused on the acceptance of the experiencer

And this made a lot of sense to me. I was starting to get increasingly sceptical about what I call “medicinal mindfulness” – you know you are stressed and will continue to be stressed so you schedule your yoga, and set alarms to do your calm / mindspace / insight timer app and conduct your spot meditations, but the stress does not abate in any substantive way. Perhaps because these acts are focussed primarily on the doing of mindfulness in an effort to soldier on through. 

But, by ignoring the self-compassion aspect, we don’t really change anything. We are still just ‘white knuckling’ through. 

Anyway, one of the components that REALLY resonated in the workshop was a discussion on shame. I was familiar with shame research through Dr Brene Brown and explored it in my talk ‘Why leaders don’t lead change’. Germer took that to another level for me and it really struck me how important shame is in organisational change. 

Germer defines shame as the emotion that arises when we believe we are too flawed to be loved and accepted by others. He explains: 

  • Shame feels blameworthy, but it is an innocent.
  • Shame feels isolating, but it is a universal.
  • Shame feels permanent and all-encompassing, but it is transitory, like all emotions, and it is a burden carried by only part of who we are.

I think it is the first paradox that underscores most of what we see as shame responses in organisational change. Shame is an innocent. It is born of the desire to be loved and to be seen as worthy of love. 

To translate this – we see leaders, who think that their peers, the media, their employees are critical of them and they are not worthy of love. 

We see people being asked to do things differently which may mean that they are clumsy, and not performing like they usually do and this risks people not loving them anymore.

Brene Brown talks about the biggest shame trigger being fear of irrelevance. 

How many organisational leaders have charted a course of change out of fear of irrelevance and demonstrated in a kind of institutional ‘me too-ism’ – “ANZ is going agile, us too!” 

Closer to home, I probably couldn’t count the times I’ve used General Eric Shinseki’s quote “If you think you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”.

Brown, Neff and Germer talk about the responses to shame being the triggering of the fight, flight, freeze responses. The good old amygdala hijack. 

And so perhaps, unsurprisingly, we see leaders of change disengaging from the work that needs to be done, unable to make decisions, and acting hostile when provided with feedback. We see employees taking more sick days, stuck in a state of uncertainty, or pushing back overtly on the change. 

It makes sense. 

The antidote to shame from Germer, Neff and Brown is compassion (especially self-compassion), perhaps easier said than done! I’m still working through what this means in practice, and how I use this information in a respectful way in both the design and coaching work I do. 

Brown provides four steps to dealing with ‘shame screens’: 

  1. Recognizing the personal vulnerability that led to the feelings of shame 
  2. Recognizing the external factors that led to the feelings of shame 
  3. Connecting with others to receive and offer empathy (though I think Germer and Neff would switch out compassion)
  4. Discussing and deconstructing the feelings of shame themselves

But I’m keen to hear from you, dear reader. 

If you are a leader of organisations, how does this content resonate with you? It strikes me that the costs of shame are exceptionally high. 

I’d like to think we can lower them. 


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